Death, we ponder this month of the Faithful Departed, is the final stage of growth Godward. At death we will all end up in the mold we have cast for ourselves here below. Thus, death can be embraced with celebration. St. Paul, in First Corinthians, asked: “O death/ where is your sting?” (15:55)
Death is not only the Dark Fear consequent upon sin. It is also the zenith of growth in this life, a life which does not really end, but is rather transformed into new life. Death is our last venture this side of eternity; true. But it is a venture experienced with Christ, who, having also experienced death, now risen from the grave, lives.
Jesus lives. Christ’s resurrection from the tomb on Good Friday is the reason why death can be a beautiful event. In First Thessalonians, Paul explained: “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, God will bring forth with him from the dead those also who have fallen asleep believing in him.” (4:14)
And in his First Epistle to Corinth, the Apostle wrote:
…if Christ was not raised, your faith is worthless. You are still in your sins, and those who have fallen asleep in Christ are the deadest of the dead. If our hopes in Christ are limited to this life only, we are the most pitiable of men. But as it is, Christ is now raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep… (15:17-20)
As Catholic Christians our faith is that Jesus, following his true and actual death and burial, rose from the grave in his total and, consequently, physical reality, to glorified perfection and immortality. Hence a merely figurative interpretation of the Resurrection is ruled out.
Again and again Christ foretold that he must die and rise again. Read, for some examples, Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34; or Matthew 12:40; or John 2:19 sqq. Moreover, our divine Lord kept repeating this prophecy even in the face of open disbelief on the part of his disciples; see Mark 9:10, for instance. In fact, the disciples in general were inclined to question rather than accept the fact of the empty tomb; John was the exception (John 20:23). The Savior’s apparitions following his resurrection dispelled any hesitation as to belief on the disciples’ part. The same Jesus who died and had been buried really appeared “over a period of many days” (Acts 13:31). This risen Jesus was recognized as truly Jesus of Nazareth; the apostles not only saw him, but touched him and dined with him. Read Luke 24:36-40; John 20:19-29; Luke 24:29 sqq; John 21:19-23; Acts 10:41.
That Christ’s resurrection is a mystery cannot be questioned. St. Paul clearly attests to this, especially in First Corinthians 15. As Jean Guitton has put it:
“At a moment that cannot be exactly dated, the whole being of Jesus of Nazareth, really dead, buried in a sealed tomb, was put beyond the realm of the cosmos [and] was borne, glorious, to the bosom of God.”
But mystery is not inconsonant with reality. Again, Peter and the Apostles, the disciples and the women saw, touched, even dined with the risen Lord. In Guitton’s words:
“The credibility of the mystery [of the Resurrection] was not based on a vision, but on a datum: the apparitions which were grasped, that is by testimonies regarding an experience unique in its kind, both exterior and interior.”
Thus, there can be no question that our divine Lord, who died on Calvary and was buried in a tomb, really rose from death to a new life. The phrase “new life” should be emphasized here, because Roman Catholic belief based on the Sacred Scriptures is that Christ returned to this life not as Lazarus did when he was called forth from death by Jesus, but rather to an entirely new form of existence, with a glorified body under the domination of the Spirit and free of spatio-temporal dimensions as we know them.
In Jesus’ resurrection, all who believe in Jesus will also rise; all who believe in him will never really die. Again, read First Corinthians 15.
A Christian views bereavement according to how he or she views death. Bereavement evokes grief, but it is also characterized by hope.
That sorrow is a natural human, and clearly Christian, reaction to bereavement is attested to by the New Testament. After the martyrdom of St. Stephen, for example, we read that devout men buried his body “bewailing him loudly as they did so.” (Acts 8:2) And following the death of the beautiful convert Tabitha, also known as Dorcas, all the widows approached St. Peter “in tears.”
Moreover, he who dies in Christ is assured of participating in the resurrection of the flesh on the last day. Here it should be noted that death does not constitute the total separation of part of man – his body—from his earthly self. Not at all. The body is not to be conceived of as a part of man, a part that can be discarded, a part that is only accidental to the “real” person, defined as some ethereal substance called “soul.” The “new life” one achieves after death is not simply the continuation of the soul, in the assumption that the soul, a spiritual substance, cannot die. This assumption reflects the Platonic or dualistic view of death as the soul’s liberation from the body and its exodus into a purely spiritual state. No; man is not pure spirit, but a composition of spirit and body.
Think of death as an interruption of the mystery of life. Romano Guardini expressed it this way:
Man… has two forms of body, an earthly and a heavenly, and the earthly is to the heavenly as the seed to the wheat. Death lies between them. The body must be laid in the earth and decay before the new and heavenly body comes into being. At this point the analogy fails. The plant “grows” directly “from” the seed, from its structures and its functions; but the heavenly body does not grow in the same fashion from the earthly body. The seed, by virtue of the identity of forms, both being “wheat,” through its decay becomes alive in the new plant. The human body, however, after death must be “awakened.” The force which raises it does not derive from its inner nature, but from beyond, from God’s free power. What that power is, is known by the Resurrection. It is the power that raised Christ from the tomb….
Bereavement for a believer, therefore, reflects faith that that one who has died has been awakened by the risen, living Christ to a new life – to an eternally and perfectly meaningful life.
One of the most celebrated descriptions of bereavement appears in St. Augustine’s recollections of his saintly mother’s death. These form part of Book IX of The Confessions, an enduring classic of world literature as well as an incomparable document of theological, ascetical and psychological insights.
When St. Monica died at Ostica, in the 56th year of her age, Augustine wrote:
I closed her eyes; and there flowed into my heart a great sadness and it was passing into tears; when mine eyes at the same time, by the violent control of my mind, sucked back the fountain dry…
…we did not consider it fitting to celebrate that funeral with tearful plaints and groaning, for on such wise are they who die unhappy, or are altogether dead, won’t be mourned. But she neither died unhappy, nor did she altogether die.
No tears were shed during the funeral Mass, either, though Augustine admitted to being secretly sad. Even as his mother’s body was carried to the grave, he recalled:
…we both went and retired without tears….
The funeral over, recollections of his mother finally broke open the floodgates of tears. He wrote:
….I set free the tears which I has repressed, that they might flow at their will, spreading them beneath my heart; and it rested in them, for Thy ears were nigh me…
Finally, Augustine’s firm hope of Monica’s being “quickened in Christ” dominated his soul. Recalling that she cared nothing for a costly burial, but desired only to have her name commemorated at the altar “which she had served without intermission of one day,” he prayed:
….Unto the sacrament of our ransom did Thy handmaid bind her soul by the bond of faith…Let none separate her from Thy protection.
Faith erases the tragedy of death. Faith in Jesus’ resurrection can render death beautiful; death and bereavement can be celebrated as well as mourned.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.