We always know that we are coming to the end of the liturgical year when the readings start dealing with the end of time generally. The readings take on a more apocalyptic flavour. This time of the year and moving into Advent were traditionally the time when the Church considered what are known as the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell.
November also is traditionally the time when we remember those who have gone before us. (We have our Cross over here where we do just that.) We kick off November with the Feast of All Saints, when we remember those whom we seek to emulate and those whom we ask for prayers. We then have All Souls when we remember those who might not yet be saints and so those who are in need of our prayers. And when we put those two feasts together we get a beautiful picture of the Church as kind of like a family on a walk, with the parents holding the hands of the older siblings who are in turn holding the hands of the younger siblings. Everyone doing his or her part to move safely towards the destination.
This last week or so in the parishes have been a great reminder of that for me. Not only have we had baptisms, but we are also going to have first communions, confirmations as well as the usual weddings, confessions and anointings. And this focus on the last things that we get at this time, as well as this picture of the Church moving towards her home, got me thinking about the last moments for each one of us.
As a priest, I am privileged to be present when people are dying. Perhaps many of us have been present when someone has died. Or perhaps not many of us. It is of course a very special moment. However, I would like to share with you what happens when I am called to visit someone who is dying, because I think it can tie a lot of these different sacraments and traditions together. Also, I think it might help us imagine trying to answer that question: how do I want to die?
Often these days, if I am called to someone’s deathbed, they are usually either in hospital or in a palliative care home. Indeed, often at a hospital, the person is no longer conscious. Notwithstanding that, when I arrive, after I have introduced myself to any family and to the nursing staff, I introduce myself to the person who is dying. There is a liturgy that takes place – moving from reconciliation, to anointing which finishes, if the person is still conscious, with viaticum or communion, and I explain all this to the person in question.
But, besides the words of the various sacraments, I think the most important thing I say is to remind the person that because of his or her baptism, the moment of death should be no different to every other moment of life. It will still have the same form. It will still have the same invitation. It will still require the same response. Through baptism, every moment of life is defined according to the Mass. Every moment becomes a Word from God, a Word of all-encompassing love, a Word of total gift. And then through that Word of Love, every moment becomes an invitation, an invitation to place all one’s hope on God, to trust in God’s love and to relax into God’s embrace. Every moment then seeks the offering that we make in Mass. This is the structure of all of life, and so it is also the structure of the moment of death.
Our deaths like our lives are moments when we are asked to place everything in God’s hands. At different moments of our lives, this looks different. Sometimes placing everything in God’s hands looks like hard work and determination. Sometimes it looks like leisure and imagination, perhaps creative play. Other times, like before we fall asleep and when we die, it looks like a baby being held by a mother. In fact, the Night Prayer of the Church, especially in the praying of the Nunc dimittis, has this form: a handing over to God. A peaceful surrender.
All the sacraments in some way participate in this form of life that we receive at baptism. Confession dusts us off to remember this truth. Confirmation strengthens us to receive this love and respond totally. Marriage and Ordination further specify the particulars of this invitation and response. Anointing prepares us for the final leg of the journey. And again, this is that picture of the Church, marching along, with Christ at our head, all doing our part, relying on each other, and holding each other up.
This is why those last words of Jesus in today’s gospel are such a consolation. His words will not pass away. So, if we attach ourselves to his words, if we follow his commandments, if we accept the gift he makes of himself in the Eucharist, if we make the same gift of ourselves to our brothers and sisters, then we can be confident that we have been formed by his words, formed by him, incorporated into him. And if we are formed by him, incorporated into him, then we participate in the same reality as his words. We become eternal. We have everlasting life. We have nothing to fear. We are completely free to give our lives away. So, let’s pray for this freedom of heart. May we live Christ’s death at every moment, so that we can trust completely in his resurrection.