Though death is something everyone must face, we feel a strong instinctive conviction that it is something unintelligibly negative. The raw ugliness of it could kill our sense of purpose, so forgetting about it would seem to help us simply get on living. While the morose and morbid can become an unhealthy obsession, the fact of our mortality forces the way we understand and live life into perspective. If our capacity for life and activity ends with death, we have to wonder if what we are could somehow be greater than all our activity. Attempting to be happy requires some kind of activity – indeed happiness itself must be the kind of activity which makes existing meaningful and good. If the activity of happiness itself becomes impossible at death, our act of existing would contain an internal contradiction. So if we reject skepticism, and hope to find the happiness that makes sense of our existence, we must also be certain this happiness is possible beyond death. Without that certitude, we are forced to ignore death, flee from it, or thrust ourselves into it prematurely out of despair.
Jesus brings sure hope to human mortality by his Resurrection. This hope allows us to cling to Him in faith. For the Christian, it provides the certainty of happiness beyond the grave. Death itself becomes the threshold of eternal happiness. Christ invites us to begin dying already in anticipation of the final moment of our earthly life. Following Him, dying to ourselves, we begin to taste a happiness that may reliably continue beyond the grave. Whatever time we have on this earth can become an opportunity to shed earthliness, passion, selfishness, and greed – everything our physical death will sever. The soul that remains divided at the moment of death – clinging to Christ while at the same time clinging to the world, will suffer the torment of its own attachments until it has finally left behind all that is not Christ. This last delay before entering fully into eternal happiness can be accelerated by the love and prayers of those who remain in the world interceding for their dead brothers and sisters. May our generous prayers for the deceased liberate both them and us from the tendencies to selfishness keeping us from true happiness.
EPHREM THE SYRIAN:
The Virgin’s son met the widow’s son. He became like a sponge for her tears and as life for the death of her son. Death turned about in its den and turned its back on the victorious one.1
CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA:
The dead man was being buried, and many friends were conducting him to his tomb. Christ, the life and resurrection, meets him there. He is the Destroyer of death and of corruption. He is the One in whom we live and move and are. He is who has restored the nature of man to that which it originally was and has set free our death-fraught flesh from the bonds of death. He had mercy upon the woman, and that her tears might be stopped, he commanded saying, “Weep not.” Immediately the cause of her weeping was done away.2
CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA:
Let it be known to people everywhere that the Lord is God, and even though he appeared in a form like us, yet has he given us the indications of a godlike power and majesty on many occasions and in a multitude of ways. He drove away diseases and rebuked unclean spirits. He gave the blind their sight. Finally, he even expelled death itself from the bodies of men, death that cruelly and mercilessly had tyrannized humankind from Adam even to Moses, according to the expression of the divine Paul. That widow’s son at Nain arose unexpectedly and wonderfully. The miracle did not remain unknown to everyone throughout Judea but was announced abroad as a divine sign, and admiration was upon every tongue.3
“The righteous one, even if he dies prematurely, will find rest.” For whom, or from whom, is there in fact rest in this world, if there are trials on every side and, when we are spared these, temptations are everywhere? Indeed, this world should be feared, whether it threatens or seduces. But if one fears both God and the world, he will despise the latter, so as to better guard himself against it. Therefore, if we want to be at rest when death comes to surprise us, let us be righteous.4
AUGUSTINE: You will say, How much and how often have I prayed, and I have not been answered! But what did you ask for? Perhaps you asked for the death of your enemy. And … what if he asked for yours, as well? The one who created you also created him. You are a human being, and he is too, but God is the judge. He has listened to both of you and answered neither. Are you sad because your prayer against your enemy has not been granted? Rejoice, rather, that your enemy’s prayer has not been granted, to your harm. But, you say, I did not ask for this. I did not ask for the death of my enemy but the life of my son. What evil is there in that? You asked for nothing evil, in your opinion. But what would you say if he was taken so that wickedness would not corrupt his soul? But, you object, he was a sinner! And this is why I wanted him to live, so that he would amend his life. You wanted him to live so that he would become better. And what would you say if someone told you that God knew that he would have become worse if he had lived? How do you know which would have been better for him, to die or to live? If, then, you do not know, return to your heart, and leave every decision to God. You will say to me, “But, then, what should I do? What should I ask for in prayer?” What should you ask for? What the Lord, the heavenly teacher, taught us. Invoke God as God, love God as God. There is nothing better than him. Desire him, long for him!5
FULGENTIUS OF RUSPE:
“His soul in fact was pleasing to God, because he hastened to take him away from iniquity.” Precisely with these words the sacred Scripture teaches us that in this world, it is not a long life that matters but a good life. To know the merits, as much as we can, of a deceased person, you must closely observe not how long he lived but how he lived. In fact, just as in a wicked life, the longer one lives the more punishments are multiplied for the one who lives in sin, so in a good life, though it is over in a brief period of time, a great, unending glory is gained for the one who lives well. A wicked life, then, leads to increasing ill temper in bitter, immature old people, whereas a good life leads young people, who die mature, to the kingdom of God.6
Who can hurt such a man? Who can subdue him? In prosperity he makes moral progress, and in adversity he learns to know the progress he has made. When he has an abundance of mutable goods he does not put his trust in them, and when they are taken away he gets to know whether or not they have taken him captive.7
It is not by ourselves but by the Holy Spirit who is given to us that this charity, shown by the apostle to be God’s gift, is the reason why tribulation does not destroy patience but rather gives rise to it.8
By saying that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, Paul gives us hope that we will be saved through him, much more so now that we are cleansed from sin and justified against the wrath which remains for sinners. The One who so loved his enemies that he gave his only Son to die for us will surely be much readier to grant those who have received this gift and been reconciled to him the further gift of eternal life.9
- COMMENTARY ON TATIAN’S DIATESSARON 6.23. Just, A. A. (Ed.). (2005). Luke (p. 117). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- COMMENTARY ON LUKE, HOMILY 36. Just, A. A. (Ed.). (2005). Luke (pp. 117–118). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- COMMENTARY ON LUKE, HOMILY 37. Just, A. A. (Ed.). (2005). Luke (p. 118). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- SERMON 335m. Voicu, S. J. (Ed.). (2010). Apocrypha (p. 68). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- EXPOSITIONS OF THE PSALMS 85.8. Voicu, S. J. (Ed.). (2010). Apocrypha (pp. 69–70). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- LETTERS 2.7.4. Voicu, S. J. (Ed.). (2010). Apocrypha (p. 70). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- OF TRUE RELIGION 92. Bray, G. (Ed.). (1998). Romans (Revised) (pp. 125–126). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- GRACE AND FREE WILL 18.39. Bray, G. (Ed.). (1998). Romans (Revised) (p. 126). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- COMMENTARY ON THE EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS. Bray, G. (Ed.). (1998). Romans (Revised) (p. 127). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.