|Jesus' Dying and Our Dying: For
Ash Wednesday Meditation
A Sheaf of Sermons Selected from the Writings of
RT. REV. PAUL WILHELM V. KEPPLER
LATE BISHOP OF ROTTENBURG
B. HERDER BOOK CO.
Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, 1929
"Let us also go that we may die with Him."
THE heart-gripping plaint which we have just heard, the silence of the bells, the black color of the vestments, the interrupted Mass, the lamentations full of misery and wailing, call forth in our souls the true Good Friday mood and lead us into the dark cloud that ever enshrouds this day. It is a semblance of those three hours of darkness of the first Good Friday, when the sun veiled its face and all nature donned mourning, seized by agony at the death of the Saviour.
Death's throes steal upon our soul as we contemplate the scene on Golgotha, where death and life wage a marvelous duel on the Cross. This great event concerns all of us, it reaches into our own life and death. The thought of our own dying is automatically united with that of the death of Jesus.
When the Saviour disclosed to His disciples His intention of going again into Judea, they objected: "Rabbi, the Jews but now sought to stone Thee: and goest Thou thither again?" But Thomas, sullenly determined, said: "Let us also go that we may die with Him" (Jn. xi, 16).
Thomas expresses an excellent thought for Good Friday. Come, let us also go up to Golgotha and be present at Christ's death, so that some time we too may die with Him.
How can we learn how to die? Doesn't one really learn how to die when the end actually draws near? That is the view of the worldly-minded, who during life nervously avoid all thought of dying. The worldling develops marvelous skill in barring the thought of death from his mind as often as it approaches. Even when death itself draws near and sentences him to a bed of sickness he continues to play the game of hide-and-seek, and his friends and relatives aid in tricking his weakened vision with a mirage of treacherous hopes and assurances. Thus it may happen that a poor dying man suddenly awakens in the world beyond without ever having given a serious thought to dying. What sort of an awakening will that be? Commonly the awakening takes place here below, during the last days and hours, when the icy breath of the grave chills the trembling soul and the thought of death can no longer be set aside, but grips the sick man as with an ague. Then indeed there is direst need, and naught but a miracle of grace can, under the stress of abject fear and startled confusion, permit of a worthy reception of the Sacraments and at least a semblance of an orderly closing of the books of life.
We, on our part, should determine not to be surprised by death. O Crucified Saviour, let us not die unprepared! We wish to learn from Thee to be prepared to die! We will heed Thy admonition, "Be ready" (Estote parati"; Luke 12:40).
The Saviour was ever prepared for death. Throughout His life He died daily in anticipation; He had death constantly before His eyes, vividly previsioned with Divine omniscience all the anguish and torture of which it is made up. The Cross cast its black shadow even into the paradise of His childhood and youth. The baptism of blood awaiting Him kept His blood athrob throughout His life: "I have a baptism wherewith I am to be baptized, and how I am straitened until it be accomplished!" (Luke 12:50.) Having positively predicted His death, and heroically prepared for it, He sets out for Jerusalem, and after He has, in the Garden of Olives, overcome human nature's final resistance to suffering and death with an heroic "Not My will, but Thine be done"-----He surrenders to death; and His death is the most voluntary death since time began and until time shall end.
The Saviour showed us by example how to die a good death, and He wishes us to think often of His death and our own. Therefore, in instituting the Eucharist He incorporated in it (the Mass) the remembrance of His death: "Do this for a commemoration of Me" (Luke 22:19). "As often as you shall eat this bread," says the Apostle, "and drink the chalice, you shall shew the death of the Lord until He come" (1 Cor. 11:26). For this reason the Church, from the earliest days, provided that the image of the Crucified Saviour should be found everywhere, in the churches, on the altars, in the dwellings, in the schools, along the roads and on hills and mountains-----to remind the Christians of His death and their death. Thus from the beginning the "Memento mori" became an essential part of the Christian philosophy of living and the Christian rule of life.
The good Catholic does not avoid the thought of death; rather he makes of it a companion along the road, an escort through life, a friend and a counselor; and to this thought he owes much wisdom, much prudent guidance, many good impulses, and on many occasions preservation from error, sin and vice. The sage of the Old Law exhorts us: "In all thy works remember thy last end, and thou shalt never sin" (Eccles. 7:40), and St. Augustine declares in connection therewith that this thought breaks pride, quenches envy, cures wickedness, dissipates lustfulness, destroys vanity and boasting, exercises a wholesome discipline, perfects sanctity, and prepares man for eternal salvation.
The good Christian knows this and therefore weaves the thought of death into the fabric of his entire life. lt is a dark thread in the woof of life, but a strong thread, which lends stamina and stability to life as a whole. The good Christian often prays for the grace of a happy death. When he approaches the confessional, he says to himself: "I will make this confession as if it were my last;" and when he nears the Lord's table: "If this should be my last Holy Communion, let it be my viaticum, strengthening me to die well;" and at night when retiring: "If this be my last night, O God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" Thus he realizes the importance of the song our forefathers sang so frequently in the Middle Ages: "In the midst of life we are in death." Even in our natural life dying always keeps step with living. Each hour through which we live is an hour cut away from our life. Each time we have grown a year older, our span of life has been shortened by a year. Each step takes us nearer to the grave; each heart-beat-----the heart is death's timepiece in our breast-----admonishes us to prepare for the end.
In this fashion living and dying are interwoven in human life. Vain are all attempts to separate them, silly all endeavors to frighten away the thought of death. It is wrong, too, to look upon death as an extremely unpleasant natural occurrence which one cannot escape, and which, it is best to think about as little as possible. Ah! no! Dying is the final outcome, the net result of life. Dying is the richest fruit of living; dying is life's last, great deed, even as the bitter Passion and death of the Saviour was the highest and most glorious achievement of His living and the greatest of all the great deeds of redemption performed by Him. A good death must be earned by a good life, must have been previously lived through, worked for, fought for, prayed for, must be prepared carefully.
'Tis true, our preparedness for death cannot be as clearly and completely visioned as was that of the Saviour. At all times He saw before Him the day and the hour, Gethsemane and Golgotha, the pillar and the crown of thorns, the cross and the nails, and accepted in advance all these pains and torments, thus preparing Himself for death. Concerning death, we are wholly certain of but one thing, namely, that we must die. When, and where, and how, whether five or ten years from now, a week hence or tomorrow, whether at home or among strangers-----of all these circumstances we know nothing.
This uncertainty, however, should not detract from our preparedness for dying, but should rather increase our watchfulness and zeal, mindful of the Lord's admonition: "Watch ye, therefore, because you know not the day nor the hour" (Matt. 15:13). We should confidently leave the when, the where, and the how in God's hands and declare ourselves in agreement with what His holy Will may decree with respect to the time, place, and manner of our death. All through life we should frequently repeat the dying prayer of the Saviour: "Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit" (Luke 23:46); establish contact between His and our suffering and dying; unite in advance all our bodily misery, all anguish of soul, the throes and distress of our dying with His suffering and death.
Then let Death come when, where, and how it will-it will not find us unprepared, it will not surprise and overwhelm us like a thief in the night. But it will rather come as an old acquaintance, with whom one is on speaking terms, as a friend and a brother, as Death was greeted by St. Francis. Death will find us ready, armed with the same thought with which Christ suffered (1 Pet. 4:1): resignation to the will of God and attachment to the dying Saviour. Reception of the last Sacraments (may none of us die without them!) presses the seal of salvation on suffering and dying. Death will still be trying enough. It is exceptional indeed that a person at death's door can say as did the great theologian Suarez: "I would never have thought death could be so sweet." But whether distressing or agreeable, bitter or sweet, it will be a good death, leading, not into eternal perdition, but into eternal life. Whoever has frequently thought of death during life, may, when death comes, think with eager hopefulness and confidence of life eternal.
Prayer of Resignation to the Divine Will with Indulgence
Plenary Indulgence at the Moment of Death
Let us also go up in order to die with Jesus. To die as He died, to die with Him, that is what we seek to learn in the school of the Cross. Let us not forget the lesson we have learned today, but let us rather educate ourselves further and strive to make progress in the ars moriendi, the art of dying, which our forefathers esteemed so highly. No doubt we are all prepared to do so. But perhaps there are some among us who think: "That was a pious, useful instruction; true, it is wholesome to think of death and there is nothing better than to die as Christ died; I shall make a note of it and recall it when I am older or if I should become seriously ill."
No matter how seemingly reasonable that sounds, it is by no means the correct lesson to be drawn from our meditation. We have realized the necessity of being prepared for death. At what age does it begin? To this question there is but one answer for everybody: Today. Whether you are twelve or twenty, or thirty or fifty, or seventy years of age, Memento mori applies to you and to everybody. For among the fifty millions who die each year, the one hundred and fifty thousand who die each day, the six thousand claimed by death each hour, there are children and youths, middle-aged and old men and women. No age is immune against death. Let us all, therefore, young and old, today on Golgotha's heights and during our visits to the holy sepulchres in various churches, set our hearts in order and keep them prepared until death calls.
And let us not step down from Golgotha without having commended the hour of our death to the Mother, whose comforting presence even the Saviour did not wish to forego in the hours of His agony; whom He named and ordained on Golgotha, by His blood and His word, as the Mother of the dying. Let us pray to her as did our pious forefathers:
When we lie in mortal anguish,
Mary, Queen, our terror vanquish;
Mother, stand by us in death,
Virgin, bless our dying breath. Amen.