St Paul almost seems to be taunting death with these two questions in his first letter to the Corinthians. And I am wondering how many of us have the audacity to do that.
The culture of death seems to be around us where the voiceless have no right to life and the pain-filled have the right to end life. Diseases and disasters, pride and profit become tentacles of death – an end from which no living person
can escape. Majestic royalty or meagre rogue, all fall within the clutches of death. Doesn’t death appear to win eventually?
No, and never with Christ. St Paul follows his questions with a confident affirmation, “so let us thank God for giving us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ”. Victory does not belong to death. Instead, death has been destroyed by God. How? By the willingness of Jesus Christ to enter into his Passion where he embraced death (death which cannot contain life itself ), and then, burst forth from the tomb having been raised to new life in the resurrection. That is what we celebrate at the Triduum, particularly in Easter! Death gives way to Life!
I say that Jesus embraced death because it was a sacred and free act of his. Consummatum est, we read in John 19:30; it is consummated or accomplished or finished, depending on the English translation. What is accomplished? The saving act
of Christ which culminated on the cross, where the cross of shame becomes the throne of glory. In obedience to God, Jesus countered the disobedience of Satan. In the utter humility of dying naked on the cross, Jesus shamed the pride of the evil one.
We continue to read in John 19 that Jesus gave up the spirit. Jesus is in control. He is not a passive victim of an unjust trial, but a director in bringing forth justice and salvation for all. And perhaps, even psychologically, the example of Jesus can help us face death and face the process of dying: to “take charge” of our own life and death, and how we die.
I sometimes see people who, having been diagnosed with cancer, live as if they have already lost the fight, but I have also seen others battle on and live fully until the very last minute. I would like to mention Venerable Antonietta Meo, an Italian girl who died from aggressive bone cancer just before she turned seven. Despite her young age, she serenely embraced her illness and united her tremendous sufferings with that of Jesus’ Passion. Today, her remains are held in the Church of the Holy Cross in Rome, very near the relics of the true cross, and the process towards her sainthood is underway because she could see her suffering in the light of Christ’s.
Similarly for St Francis; as he neared his end, he called out to Sister Death and welcomed her. He even composed a stanza on Sister Death within the Canticle of Brother Sun.
We are told that St Francis could embrace Sister Death so readily because he was already assured by the Lord of his salvation. This was the message Francis received when moved to self-pity one day: “Then brother, be glad and rejoice in your illnesses and troubles, because as of now, you are as secure as if you were already in my kingdom.”
It is really easy for those of us who are healthy to talk about sickness and suffering, and have lofty spiritual ideas about it. But I think we need to already begin to confront our own mortality and creatureliness. Sickness and death are part of human living, and it is pertinent to begin confronting these conditions when our health is still holding up and our faith is still unshaken. In fact, it would be wise for us to keep deepening and strengthening our faith in the Lord and in his providence, so that when anything untoward besets us, we have a firm foundation that will not crumble.
I find it beautiful that All Souls Day follows All Saints Day, where our celebration of the latter gives hope to the celebration of the former. Hope that carries us on our journey of faith whilst on earth; hope that breathes light and refreshment in our darkness and tiredness; hope that the ultimate victory is God’s and we just need to claim and participate in this gift.
Brother Derrick Yap OFM