On Christian Death

by Nick Jones, University of Rhode Island

I think about death a lot, probably because I go to a lot of funerals. Since I started college in Fall 2017, I’ve been to over 30 of them. Some have been for family; most have been those I serve at my parish.  In that time, I’ve had a myriad of experiences. I’ve been emotionally devastated, and I’ve had a somber detachment. One thing that is always constant is that everyone, priests included, seems unsure as to how to feel and what to tell the mourners to feel.  Do we emphasize God’s justice or His mercy? Should our grief lead us to joy or to sadness? How do we avoid despair without presumption, and vice versa? Without guidance, we cannot ever seem to get it right. Our wise Holy Mother Church, however, provides clarity through her Sacred Liturgy. 

Pious tradition tells us that the rule of prayer is the rule of belief (in Latin: lex orandi, lex credendi).  How we pray ought to shape and inform how we believe. Thus, as we observe Her funerary rites, the Church teaches us how we ought to feel about death. In the Roman Rite, the Preface which precedes the Eucharistic Prayer reflects the tone of Mass celebrated. The Extraordinary Form’s obligatory, beautiful, and ancient Preface of the Dead remains as the first of five options to be used in the Ordinary Form.  Studying it reveals gives us great context for grappling with the reality of death as a Christian.

This text is taken from the Roman Missal 3rd Edition, © ICEL 2011, “…In Him the hope of blessed resurrection has dawned, that those saddened by the certainty of dying might be consoled by the promise of immortality to come. Indeed for your faithful, Lord, life is changed not ended, and, when this earthly dwelling turns to dust, an eternal dwelling is made ready for them in Heaven…”

“…In Him the hope of blessed resurrection has dawned…” We speak often of virtue as a moderation of two extremes. Here, our Holy Church asks us to pursue Hope as the moderation of Presumptuousness and Despair.  At so many modern funerals, it seems as though we are attending a canonization. We rarely hear about the idea of sin, justice, or Purgatory. Instead, we hear preachers speaking as though the departed is already in Heaven.  This smacks of Presumptuousness in that we can never know for certain where someone is after death until we see them for ourselves or they are declared a saint. On the other extreme is Despair, which smacks of a lack of trust in the omnipotence of God’s grace.  No living soul is so far gone that grace cannot heal them once they repent. So, whether our beloved deceased were devout or lukewarm, all we can do is simply hope in their salvation. We can pray for them and offer Masses for them in hopes of their eventual full attainment of the Resurrection of Christ.

“…that those saddened by the certainty of dying might be consoled by the promise of immortality to come.” Death is a sad thing.  It is sad because it shows the effects of sin, it reminds us that things are not the way they are supposed to be. Death is certain. At some point our lives here on Earth will cease. Mourning, then, is a healthy practice. All too often we are told by well-intentioned Catholics not to mourn. This goes against our nature; it undersells the preciousness of life. Christ Himself mourned Lazarus before He raised Him from the dead (cf. John 11:35). God allowed death to enter the world, but it is His will that it eventually be destroyed forever. While we shouldn’t despair, of course, we ought to mourn. We mourn as means of giving thanks to God, telling Him how much we loved the deceased. We mourn so that our grief might make atonement for their sins. But, our mourning is not in vain. Again, we must hope. The Church stresses that there is a promised immortality awaiting us all.  If we do our due diligence and cooperate with grace, our God, Truth Himself, will not balk on His promise. 

“…Indeed for your faithful, Lord, life is changed not ended…” This is perhaps the most profound statement of the whole preface. If we are truly faithful, then our life never truly ends; it merely changes. In fact, if we attain the glories of Heaven, we will be more alive than we have ever been here below.  Heaven is the fullness of life. It is the life intended for man from all time. It is the place where our restless hearts are able rest in Him for Whom they were made. The fact that there is so great a reward awaiting us should keep us hopeful, it should encourage us to fuel that hope with our actions. 

“…when this earthly dwelling turns to dust, an eternal dwelling is made ready for them in Heaven…” Man’s body comes from dust and shall return there.  Secular society likes to end it there. The Church reminds us here of Christ’s promise that there are many dwelling places in the Father’s house (cf. John 14:2). Again, we are confronted with the inevitability of death.  This earthly dwelling turning to dust is not a matter of if, but rather one of when. The existence of a heavenly dwelling for us is also not a matter of if. What is an if, however, is our attainment of that dwelling place.  It is up to us to cooperate with the grace of God in order to attain it.  

In summary, each section of the preface expresses the necessity of the feeling of hope.  For the unbaptized, it may be difficult to hope. But for us, the Church, into whom the virtue of Hope has been infused, this is much easier.  Hope, the desire of a future good and the belief that we will one day receive it, is what tempers the righteous sadness of death. It stirs us to desire to experience the bodily Resurrection already experienced by Christ. Hope consoles us with a promise of a continuation of life eventually, if we uphold our end of the bargain and lead good lives.  It reminds us that there is a spot ready and waiting for us in Heaven if we would but accept the love of God and live only for Him.  

One comment

  1. I sing in the Resurrection Choir at Holy Trinity, my parish. Like the writer of this excellent article, I have attended many, many funerals over the last 5 or 6 years.. The points made regarding accepting death were excellent. I must say that it has been many years since i have heard the words….”Presumption and Despair.” I mentioned them to a younger Catholic, not long ago, and she had never heard of this way of thinking about one’s eventual redemption. Thank you for this excellent essay…

    Like

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