Ministry to the Dying, Dead, and Bereaved
Part 3 Theological Issues

Chapter f31 Mystery of Death

Preliminary Questions

Bibliography

Dying

Death

Goldbrunner on Death

Theosis

To Think About

Preliminary Questions

"The dead are no longer where they were; now they're everywhere we are."  (St. John Chrysostom)

 

Why do we die?  Is death a part of the original plan of God, or the result of Original Sin?  Should we fear death?   

Icebergs   Frequently during our reflections we have referred to the metaphor of the iceberg.  The metaphor can be useful in our investigation of the mystery of death.  The part of the iceberg which is visible above the surface of the water corresponds to our conscious "understanding" of death:  i.e. the facts we have learned from medicine and biology, religion and anthropology.  However, the majority of the content we give to the concept "death" and the other concepts which shape our concept, lie unseen and often unrealized in our unconscious self -- much as the largest part of the iceberg (80%) lies unseen beneath the surface of the water.  icetandb

CONSIDERATION ONE:  Whenever we minister to the sick, dying, or bereaved this "below the surface" content plays a key role even if we are unaware that it is influencing our ministry. Consequently it is of the utmost importance to examine these often unexpressed memories, experiences, and attitudes so that they do not affect our ministry in prejudicial way. 

CONSIDERATION TWO:   The person or persons to whom we are ministering (the dying and/or the bereaved) may have very different "understandings" of the words we are using (death / heaven / God / eternity, etc.)  It is vitally important that the minister 1) not presume these "understandings" (the invisible part of the "death" iceberg) are identical to his/her own; and 2) listen carefully to attempt to discern something of the "understandings" of the dying and/or the bereaved. 

CONSIDERATION THREE:   Your understanding of "death" (especially your "under the iceberg" understanding) will most probably be effectively shaped by your understanding of the Trinity, Incarnation, Original Sin, Sacrifice, and Theosis.  Pay close attention to your understanding of these concepts and try to see how they are influencing your understanding of and attitudes toward death. 

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Bibliography

See the bibliography given in Chapter f17 General Bibliography For Funerals

Natalie Babbitt and Gregory Maguire.  Tuck Everlasting. [A children's novel]  Macmillan. 1975.  ISBN: 0374378487  A Novel:   Doomed to—or blessed with—eternal life after drinking from a magic spring, the Tuck family wanders about trying to live as inconspicuously and comfortably as they can. When ten-year-old Winnie Foster stumbles on their secret, the Tucks take her home and explain why living forever at one age is less a blessing that it might seem. Complications arise when Winnie is followed by a stranger who wants to market the spring water for a fortune.-- Babbitt asks profound questions about the meaning of life and death, and leaves the reader with a greater appreciation for the perfect cycle of nature. Intense and powerful, exciting and poignant, Tuck Everlasting will last forever--in the reader's imagination. An ALA Notable Book. (Ages 9 to 12) --Emilie Coulter.

Kenan Osborne, The Resurrection of Jesus: New Considerations for Its Theological Interpretation, Wipf & Stock Pub., 2004.  ISBN-13: 978-1592445875

Kevin Treston, Emergence For Life Not Fall From Grace:  Making sense of the Jesus story in the light of evolution. Mosaic Press, 2013. ISBN-13: 978-1625643070

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Death

Why do we die?  I grew up with the understanding that death was punishment resulting from original sin.  However, developments in my faith journey, biblical studies, reflection on the Sacraments of Initiation, the incarnation, the Eucharist, the nature of atonement, etc. and my own advancing age, and especially my 50+ years of pastoral experience with the sick, dying, and bereaved have led to a number of "shifts under the iceberg" with regard to the meaning and theology of death and have led me to ask if death is a "punishment" or a natural and loving part of God's Mysterious Plan for creation?

Each time we celebrate the Eucharist we proclaim the role of death in God's plan.  At each Eucharist, we who eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ are transformed into that Resurrected Body and we receive the promise that this life is not the end, but only the beginning of something wonderful -- more wonderful than we can even imagine.

"Father, in your mercy grant also to us, your children / to enter into our heavenly inheritance / in the company of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, / and your apostles and saints. / Then, in your kingdom, freed from the corruption of sin and death, / we shall sing your glory with every creature through Christ our Lord, / through whom you give us everything that is good." (Eucharistic Prayer IV 1973 translation)

Merciful father, grant that we, your children, / may enjoy the inheritance of heaven / with Mary, the Virgin mother of God, /  with the apostles and all your saints. / There, together with all creation, /  set free from the corruption of sin and death, / we shall sing your glory / through Christ our Lord, / through whom you bless the world  / with all that is good. ((Eucharistic Prayer IV, 1998 translation)

To all of us, your children, / grant, O merciful Father, / that we may enter into a heavenly inheritance / with the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, / and with your Apostles and Saints in your kingdom. / There, with the whole of creation, / freed from the corruption of sin and death, / may we glorify you through Christ our Lord, / through whom you bestow on the world all that is good. (Eucharistic Prayer IV. 2010 transalation)

We believe that "the Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life." This is not merely a statement about something Catholics do for an hour on Sunday; it is a statement that points to the very meaning of Christian existence. In the Eucharist, by the working of the holy spirit, we who eat and drink the body and blood of Christ become Christ's Body. And as Christ has conquered sin and death, we too are destined to pass through death to everlasting life.

What this life is like, we do not know.  It is not simply a return to life (like Lazarus being restored to life after 4 days in the tomb) but a new kind of life, a life transformed and divinized.   It is like the seed that is transformed into a plant.  If you only saw a grain of wheat, how could you imagine a wheat field....    You cannot "see" (but only imagion) the beautiful tulip flower in looking at the bulb.  ....

And when I celebrate the Eucharist as part of the funeral liturgy, at the gathering rites we recall our Baptism and the promise of St. Paul that if we have died with Christ in baptism we need not fear the second death. For those who have died with Christ will surely rise with him.  Christ has taken the "sting" out of death.

"Father, all-powerful and ever-living God,
we do well always and every where to give you thanks ...
Lord, for your faithful people life is changed, not ended.
When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death
we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven."
    (Preface I, Christian Death, ICEL translation of 1973)

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God,
through Christ our Lord.
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.
   (Preface I, Christian Death, ICEL translation of 2010)

This is why our "real birthday" is the day we are born into this "changed" life.  This why the Church's Liturgical Calendar celebrates the memorials of those who have passed from this life to the next on the day of their passing, i.e. the day they died, the day of their "real birth".

Perhaps, my own lived-experience leads me to this understanding of death. My mother and my brother both died very peacefully; Mom simply passed away one night while she was sleeping; Paul was working in his yard, and (a neighbor told us) laid down, and died peacefully.  They both had lived long, full lives; and, while I miss them very much, they died peacefully and are with God. It seems a natural part of God's plan for them.  Neither of them wanted to "live forever."   Personally, as I get older, I do not associate death so much with "punishment"  but as a transformation into a new, wonderful existence.  (Eye has not seen, ear has not heard ....)  

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Goldbrunner on Death

THE ROLE OF DEATH IN LITURGY

(This paper is written without any authorization whatsoever from Dr. Josef Goldbrunner. Dr. Goldbrunner, having suffered much from being misquoted, requested his students to place this statement at the top of any paper which is based upon his class notes. This is an original paper--in the sense that it is an original compilation--and not the notes of any one man retyped; however, the present author wishes to acknowledge his gratitude to Dr. Goldbrunner who is the "root-source" of many of the ideas contained in this paper.)

"It is in the face of death that the riddle of human existence becomes most acute. Not only is man tormented by pain and by the advancing deterioration of his body, but even more so by a dread of perpetual extinction. He rightly follows the intuition of his heart when he abhors and repudiates the absolute ruin and total disappearance of his own person." (Gaudium et Spes, #18ff)

There are many possible approaches to the study of liturgy-historical, systematic, legal, scriptural, pastoral, anthropological. The approach taken in this paper is twofold: pastoral and anthropological.

Pastoral theology can be defined as the doctrine of the realization of faith and the Christian life. It is the task of the pastoral theologian to take the conclusions of dogmatic, moral, and scriptural theology and to apply these conclusions to life. Pastoral theology exists propter nostram salutem. It is very concerned with who is hearing the Good News--man's time and place--and how can the Good News be made real--actualized--by man, both inwardly (faith) and outwardly (Christian living). The handmaid of pastoral theology is the science of anthropology.

The term anthropology has several meanings. Originally anthropology was the study of the history of man especially in relation to his origin, classification, races, environmental and social relations, and culture. The modern anthropologist, however, considers the object of his science to be the "totality of human nature." His sources are: theology, philosophy, sociology, biology, psychology, and especially depth psychology.

Man today is different from man fifty or a hundred or a thousand years ago. Read, for example, Harvy Cox's Secular City. Yet, the basic layer of human nature remains somehow unchanged and unchangeable. It is this layer of human nature that the modern anthropologist studies. Anthropology must say what is unchangeable in man; what is the fundamental basis of human nature.

These deeper levels of human nature are essential to the study of pastoral theology for unless we can bring man--real man, as he is today--into our theology we can easily evolve a Christianity without religion, a theory without experience.

Pastoral theology must build a bridge between anthropology and theology, between the human and the transcendent, between man and God.

There have been, and are, points of contact between the human and the transcendent. These points of contact are celebrated in liturgy. But our problem is how--how are we to celebrate this contact of man and God in liturgy? How are we to overcome the special difficulties that man today experiences in this encounter? What technique do we have by which the communication and exchange with God can best be accomplished? We have the technique of mystery.

We can describe mystery as "a dynamism in which a nonphenomenal reality becomes signified and embodied in a phenomenon."(Fr. Cyrin Maus. Class notes. St. Leonard College, 1965.) Or, "a reality existing beyond man but realized and expressed in a human reality."(Marcel van Caster, S.J. God's Word Today (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1966), p. 73.) In a liturgical sense, mystery can be defined as "a symbolic action in which an encounter with God is effected and expressed."(Ibid.) And in a Christian sense, mysteries are "holy actions performed by the community in which the Salvific Act of Christ becomes present in effect so that we can participate in it."(Josef Goldbrunner. Class notes. Notre Dame, 1967.)

But how can we accomplish this? How can we create this mysterious atmosphere in which we can touch God? (This is an atmosphere that modern man, especially the young, does not like. Today, we want to feel "at home" in Church. It is unpopular to talk "sacrifice" when everyone is talking "banquet.")

Very helpful in this matter of technique is a study of the structure of pagan mysteries--many of which are concerned with death. How do we come close to the zone of death--that zone beyond which there is nothing but God--without actually dying?

As an example, let us look at the basic structure of a pagan puberty rite. (Helpful in the study of the structure of pagan mysteries: Mircea Eliade: Birth and Rebirth (New York, 1958); Images and Symbols (New York, 1961); Myth, Dreams and Mysteries (New York, 1960); Patterns in Comparative Religion (New York, 1963); and From Primitives to Zen (New York, 1967). These rites were undergone for the purpose of a total change in the boy's personal and social life. Up to this time they had lived in a motherly-world. Now the time had come, with the advent of sexuality, for them to leave--to die to--this motherly-world and to accept their role in the masculine world--the world of hunting, begetting, leading, commanding, ruling.

It is night. The boys are at home with their mothers. Out of the darkness ghosts (elders in weird and fantastic costumes) come and rob the boys from their mothers. They are taken with power and force and are led into the forest where all is dark and lonely. They gather around a fire; and, as the ghastly shadows spread through the darkness, the ghosts relate to the boys the tales of the ancestors--the boys are brought into contact with the generations. The first part of their life is over; the motherly-world must die. They are left alone without food or drink. Maybe they are put into a hole--buried. Their old life must die. Maybe they are put through severe physical tests and ordeals--painful even to the point of death. Maybe there are dances with strong, vibrant rhythms--to the point of complete exhaustion. Sometimes a strong drink may be given so that they nearly lose all awareness of their old being. All during this time of exhaustion they are given oral instruction about their ancestors, about sex life, about the new role they must play in society. They are approaching the zone of death.

But before this zone is reached in actuality, they sleep, dream. Then upon awaking they are led back to the tribe and there is a joyful celebration. Often a new name is given. They can now live in the masculine world, they can fight, they can marry, they have the rights and duties of men. They have a new life.

They had a life in the motherly-world. They passed through death, a transition, transitus, paschal, so as to enter--to rise to--new life.

But what is their own explanation of these rites. They tell us that they are repeating what the gods had to do. They are reliving the life of the gods. The gods had to take the precosmic world, and out of this chaos and confusion, they made the cosmos. The gods entered this formless void and here--where only a god can act--brought order and life. "In the beginning. . . the earth was a formless void, there was darkness over the deep, and God's spirit hovered over the water. God said, `Let there be light'. . ." (Gen. 1:1. ed. Jerusalem.)

However, this is not "re-living," "repeating," "making-present-again," but a real entrance into that sacred time. By means of mystery man can pass from ordinary temporal duration into sacred time, for "sacred time by its very nature is reversible in the sense that, properly speaking, it is a primordial mythical time made present. Every religious festival, any liturgical time, represents the reactualization of a sacred event that took place in a mythical past, `in the beginning.' Religious participation in a festival implies emerging from ordinary temporal duration and reintegration of the mythical time reactualized by the festival itself. Hence sacred time is indefinitely recoverable, indefinitely repeatable. From one point of view it could be said that it does not `pass,' that it does not constitute an irreversible duration. It is an ontological time; it always remains equal to itself, it neither changes nor is exhausted. With each periodical festival, the participants find the same sacred time--the same that had been manifested in the festival of the previous year or in the festival of a century earlier; it is the time that was created and sanctified by the gods at the period of their gesta, of which the festival is precisely in a reactualization. In other words, the participants in the festival meet in it the first appearance of sacred time, as it appeared ob origine, in illo tempore. Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (New York: Harper & Row, 1959), pp. 68-69.)

From this pagan mystery there emerges a pattern:

Motherly-world Forest Manhood

Precosmic Chaos Cosmos

Child-Life ritual-death new life

The structure can be summarized: the movement from death to resurrection and new life through rite.

And what techniques were used in the pagan mysteries? a) deprivation of sleep, food, drink, companionship; b) silence; c) special cruelty even to the point of real death; d) dance, music rhythm; e) wine; f) sex (intercourse--to die). All these things were employed to be able to come to the border of consciousness; to ecstasy; to "stand outside myself"; to feel purified; to realize the secret of mankind; to feel the complexio oppositorum of joy in pain, life in death; to be in the hand of a superior Being.

A similar experience was created by the classic Greek Tragedy: for example, Antigone and Creon. Antigone is confronted with two conflicting religious duties. What is she to do? We identify with Antogone and suffer with her. I suffer. I feel something higher than myself; I have a feeling of death, fate, God. I am happy that I an not Antigone. I leave purified. Here again we have conflict, purification, new life; but here it is not physical pain, but psychic death.

Common to all pagan mysteries is this attempt to come close to the zone of death--this zone that separates us from the beyond--the zone beyond which there is only God. The pagan technique was cruel and inhuman. In our Christian mysteries we have the same objective--to draw near to the zone of death--but our mysteries must be purified of all that is inhuman because all this cruelty has been canceled for us by the Paschal Victory of Christ.

Christ has passed through this zone of death and has opened the door for us. He has made it easy for us to pass through this zone of death. The pagans had to try to do it themselves. Christ has done it for us, forever. And we know that he indeed did break through. The proof is his Resurrection.

"The wonders wrought by God among the people of the Old Testament were but a prelude to the work of Christ the Lord in redeeming mankind and giving perfect glory to God. He achieved His task principally by the paschal mystery of His blessed passion, resurrection from the dead, and glorious ascension, whereby "dying, he destroyed our death and, rising, he restored our life. For it was from the side of Christ as He slept the sleep of death upon the cross that there came forth the wondrous sacrament which is the whole Church." (Sacrosanctum Concilium, #5)

"Christ stripped himself of all privilege by consenting to be a slave by nature and being born as mortal man. And, having become man, he humbled himself by living a life of utter obedience, even to the extent of dying, and the death he died was the death of a common criminal. That is why God has now lifted him so high, . . . and that is why in the end every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Kyrios). (Phil. 2:5ff. ed. Phillips.)

But what did Christ do when he died? What happened to Him in death? What happens to a man when he passes over this zone of death? We leave space and time. It is something like breaking the sound barrier in an airplane. Something gives way . . .

First let us consider leaving time. What is our experience of time? We can be precise with our measurement of time--the electric clock on the wall, for example; or even more precise, an atomic clock. Yet, we can be independent of this precise, clock-time. We experience moments which seem to drag forever; some lectures for example. Or again, we experience moments which go by very quickly: a ball game, a pep rally, an excellent play, moments with a loved one. In our everyday experience we have something of what it means to be independent of time.

We also know that there are circumstances in which we can overcome time in a very special manner; for example, at the moment of death our whole life flashes before us; there is a special alertness of our psyche. Sometimes we can foresee events; for example, the special alertness some people have in the face of death. That feeling that "today something is going to happen to my son"; or "I shouldn't leave the house today..."; intuition; extrasensory perception, second sight.

This possibility can increase as we become more human so that the psyche can be independent of time. Scientifically we know that there are places in the universe where, according to the theory of relativity, each moment of the past and future is present. This is a hint of our capabilities.

What if we could break through this time, if we could leave time to enter a fifth dimension? What if the time of our life were like a piece of string; and we folded it in two; and folded it again, and again, and again, . . . until it was but one point, and then folded it again, until every point on the string was instantaneous. What if this happens to our time-of-life so that every moment of past and future were all in one "now". All points are present, all in one. This is eternity.

What does it mean to leave space? Space can be something wonderful for us. Each part of our country has its own special beauty. Space can help us realize the wonders of creation. But space can also be something terrible. It can separate us from friends. There are places we would rather be. . . We must travel great distances to be present for something. . .

What if we could break through space? We know that it is indeed possible. We hear of people having hallucinations. There are instances in which yogas have been known to bilocate. (They have even been photographed in both places simultaneously.) We hear of a mother sending "wishes" or "warnings" to an absent child. (After all, we do live in an atmosphere of the Holy Spirit.) Or a child dies far away from home and his picture falls from the wall of his mother's room. Imagine again the string being folded over and over again until it exists without extension. It is now total-different. There is no space; only air; only life; only the total Other; only God. (This leap into the unknown is one of the essential reference points in the architecture of faith). Or again, truth needs no space; it can be everywhere. Spacelessness can bring about a special relation to space. We are not "no-where but "every-where." To leave space is to leave a limitation. What if our psyche could do this? Imagine yourself (body and soul) becoming smaller and smaller to a point, disappearing, no extension, no duration, entering the realm of TOTAL PRESENCE. This is what happens when we pass the zone of death.

No one can prove that the psyche can exist beyond time and space. (There is also no argument that it cannot.) The fact that we can exist in this manner is a fact of our faith. It is the promise of Christ's resurrection.

When Mary of Magdala encountered Christ in the garden on that first Easter, Jesus told her, "Do not hold me now, I have not yet gone up to the Father." (John 20. Ed. Jerusalem) "If you hold to Me now, I will be but in one place; but if I ascent to the father, I will be ever with you, always, everywhere--totally present. Passing the deathly zone we enter total presence."(Read this in connection K. Rahner's Theology of Death, and L. Boros' Mystery of Death)

What happens as we approach this deathly zone--as we draw near to this zone of death and awake beyond. Fr. Kolping (founder of the Kolping Society) as he was about to die said: "Watch me carefully. This will be the most interesting moment of my life." Of three hundred patients observed dying in one hospital in Germany, all opened their eyes and had joy in their face at the moment they touched the zone of death. We hear other dying persons saying at this moment: "I hear heavenly music"; or "it is coming." (This Phenomenon can be explained on the bioogical level but the promise of our faith gives it an added dimension.)

Before considering the role of the liturgy in this "transitus" we must distinguish between fear and anxiety. Fear is a conscious feeling. We are conscious of what we are afraid of. We know the object of the fear. Anxiety, on the other hand, is an apprehension, a tension or uneasiness which stems from the anticipation of danger, the source of which is largely unknown or unrecognized. In the face of death, anxiety is an instinctive feeling; this is from original sin and is a symptom of our sickness, our sinfulness; but we can overcome our fear in the face of death. And we must. Christ commands us: "Look at the birds in the sky. . . Consider how the wild flowers grow. . . I forbid you to worry." (Mt. 6:28. Tran. Goldbrunner.)

But how can we overcome this fear of dying? As we approach the zone of death we experience something wonderful. We touch the zone and awake in TOTAL PRESENCE. We are released from time and space. Our past is present. Our future is present. We have a special relation to the entire cosmos. I am in this same moment everywhere, all-cosmic. I experience a total conscious expansion. In time--my whole life is present in one view, with all my wonderful times, all my evil deeds. I can see the entire interior meaning of my life. In space--I can survey the whole cosmos and the hidden meaning of every event. I see the meaning of all evolution. I can understand how the smallest thing is preparing for the Parousia. I can survey the whole history of mankind and see with the eyes of my psyche how God acts in every moment of history. All the powers of my psyche are intensified and my person is totally actualized. I can stand in my self for all my abilities are integrated in all clearness and I have full freedom and full responsibility.

And at this moment I encounter Christ face to face. I cannot flee or escape. All who have known him will see him. All who have received the full revelation will see and recognize him. Even those who have never known him will see him. And all who have known him only in caricature--from poor teaching, from the bad example of Christians, from the evils in a pseudochristian social structure--will see him as he really is.

This is the moment of my first open encounter and the moment of my last free decision--a decision that will influence all eternity. I am totally free to decide for him or against him. (I am never overwhelmed by Christ for Christ loves our humanity. He is not a dictator.) My total self in complete freedom and responsibility must say yes or no to Christ. Every moment of my life is present. What I am doing at this very moment now will then be present.

If I say yes, I enter the basileia; this yes is heaven and I embark into the new realms of excitement and exploration that God has waiting for me, "the things that no eye has seen and no ear has heard, things beyond the mind of man, all that God has prepared for those who love him." (1 Cor. 2:9; Is. 64; 3. Ed. Jerusalem)

If one says no, if one decides against Christ, this is hell. It takes a very strong person to do this (there is no population explosion in hell) yet some will do this. All that the person did here on earth is effective in this last decision. If he has so trained himself to say no to the call of the here-and-now God, if he has so conditioned himself to choose against God, that in this last moment of total freedom, in full decision and responsibility, he says no, he decides against the meaning of life; he decides against himself. He is hating himself. He is creating hell for himself. (Man creates hell; not God. Hell means that God takes our freedom seriously. Consequently we must never misuse hell--to threaten, for example--for this is contrary to the Gospel.) (Cf. C.S. Lewis: The Great Divorce.)

My whole life is a training for the decision at this moment. All is summed up (anakephalaiosasthai) in him. (Cf. Eph. 1:10) At this moment I must make up for all my lack of maturity, all my failure to love--this is purgatory.

We see what it is to pray for the dying. Could I help him at this moment? Could I invite his psyche to respond to Christ in this all important encounter?

But what role does the liturgy play in this passing over the zone of death? Modern, secular man wants to know "what purpose does it serve," "what effect does it have?" And here, with our anthropological consideration of what happens at death, we can find a pastoral answer for modern, pragmatic man.

Heideger says that it is the nature of man to worry. In our inner core we are worried about ourselves, our existence. This same theme is explored by the Vatican Council: "It is in the face of death that the riddle of human existence becomes most acute. Not only is man tormented by pain and by the advancing deterioration of his body, but even more so by a dread of perpetual extinction. He rightly follows the intuition of his heart when he abhors and repudiates the absolute ruin and total disappearance of his own person. Man rebels against death because he bears in himself an eternal seed which cannot be reduced to sheer matter. All the endeavors of technology, though useful in the extreme, cannot calm this anxiety. For a prolongation of biological life is unable to satisfy that desire for a higher life which is inescapably lodged in his breast." (Gaudium et Spes, #18.)

Christ tells us: "I forbid you to worry for your life. Look at the flowers. Look at the birds. I forbid you to worry." Yet I can find a bird frozen in the snow; flowers withered in the heat. We must be concerned about life; but in death Christ will help us. "I forbid you to have fear in the core of your being. I will give you most dying power. You will be less anxious. I will take account of you, even in death."

At Baptism, we are buried with Christ and die, and rise again to new Life. We have already radically passed over this zone and have the roots of this new Life within us.

On Good Friday, the symbol of Christ's death is liturgically unveiled--a large cross, artistically carved, unveiled slowly, mysteriously. Usually it takes a crucified man about six hours to die. Christ died in three. Was he so very weak? Or was it because he was so eager to pass over this deathly zone. With all his being he longed to jump this chasm and with one last cry he lifted his body and lept eagerly to death. And now, on Good Friday, we come close to the cross; we genuflect; we kiss it. Children can say: Thank you for dying for me. The adult can ask: Give me some of your dying power." And at this moment, Christ comes from beyond the deathly zone which he has conquered forever to strengthen me. I too can pass through this zone of death, and without the cruel techniques of the pagan mysteries. Christ has conquered death for me. He can come back and strengthen me.

At each Eucharist we celebrate this passing over, this Paschal Victory of Christ. And if I realize what is happening, I can leave each Holy Mass with true thanksgiving, with real joy, less anxious in the core of my being, with more strength for my day to day job, here and now.

Is this all a fairy tale? We must face it. It is uncertain. But it is the promise of our faith.

The priest must be an expert in leadership in the transition through the zone of death. The paschal victory must be so much a reality for us that our joy and confidence can radiate courage to others so that they can pass through this zone of death with joy and confidence. We must be so mature that we can help others pass through the continual dying, chaos, rebirth that marks our human condition. We must be able to free man through cult from this basic anxiety so that he can have the psychic energy to build up the body of Christ until the Day He comes. Come Lord Jesus! 

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Theosis

1.  Theosis:   Greek word, "deification" or "divinization"; the goal of human existence; being taken up and absorbed into the inner life of the Trinity; the result of Christian Baptism, and indeed all the sacraments.

"The glory of God gives life; those who see God receive life. For this reason God, who cannot be grasp, comprehended or seen, allows himself to be seen, comprehended and grasp by human beings, in order that He may give life to those who see and receive Him. It is impossible to live without life, and the actualization of life comes from participation in God, while participation in God enables one to see God and enjoy God's goodness." -- St. Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses 4.20.7 (PG 7/1:1037)

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To Think About

1.  In the face of death, reason gives way to the enormity of the Mystery.  This failure of reason can open the door to Faith and Hope in the things unseen -- realities beyond reason.  When reason fails, a new part of our humanity opens.  "Why" questions are left unanswered.  For this reason "silent presence" is often a better pastoral practice than "answers" --  especially facile answers in face of the enormity of the question!   In these situations, doubt and even despair can be the door which opens to hope and trust.  The situation undercuts our "too easy answers" and forces us to face God's Mysterious Plan. 

2.  In this "unreasoning place" tears are often cleansing, healing, and comforting.   Facing grief is necessary for the healing process to begin.   (While it is true that "time heals" -- this is not a good thing to say!) 

3.  Suicide:  Always leaves the bereaved with feelings of guilt.  "If only I had been there..."  "If only I had known..."  The situation reminds us of 1) our inter-connectedness in the Body of Christ and our responsibility for one another, and 2) how mysterious we each are and how little we "really know" one another.  This must give us pause before judging others in their grief. 

For legislation regarding the funerals of those who bring about their own death, see canons 1183 - 1185, especially 1184, #1:3. 

5.  Without faith, death is seen as "the end."  Faith tells us that death is not the end, but moving to a new stage of existence.  "Lord, for your faithful people life is changed, not ended." (Preface, Christian Death I).  This transition requires that we "empty" ourselves so that we can be "filled" with this new existence.  "Christ emptied himself, becoming obedient unto death on a cross."   This "emptying" requires that we leave things behind.  What do we leave behind? resentments, prejudices, hatreds, grudges, vengeful memories.   Recall the story of the two monks"You are the one who has been carrying her these past five miles." 

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Copyright: Tom Richstatter.  All Rights Reserved.  This page was created by Fr. Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.  Every effort has been, and is being made to acknowledge sources when the ideas are not my own.  Any failure to comply with the United States Copyright Act (Title 17, United States Code) will be corrected immediately should I become aware of it.  This site was updated on 05/03/17.  Your comments on this site are welcome at trichstatter@franciscan.org