Facing death in December

Death is difficult to confront. When it comes around times of great joy, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, an added burden is given to the survivors. Our Christian faith helps us to “not mourn like the rest, who have no hope” (1 Thes 4:13). Instead, our mourning makes us mindful of the blessing these deceased people were to us while alive, while we continue to show our love for them by our offerings of prayers and sacrifices for the repose of their souls. We continue to be united to them through the Eucharist, whether they are in Heaven or purgatory (which, as St. John Paul II taught during the summer of 1999, are not places, but are states of being in relationship with God after earthly death).

St. Ambrose, whose feast we celebrated this week on December 7 (this year it was the 75th anniversary of the deaths of thousands of Americans at Pearl Harbor), wrote about his sorrow on the death of his brother, Satyrus. He referred to the quote from St. Paul in the first paragraph of this editorial and wrote, “Not all weeping proceeds from unbelief or weakness. Not only grief has tears, joy also has tears of its own. [The] friends [of Old Testament figures] made a great mourning when the patriarchs were buried. Tears, then, are marks of devotion, not producers of grief. I confess, then, that I too wept, but the Lord also wept. He wept for one not related [Lazarus] to Him, I for my brother. He wept for all in weeping for one, I will weep for you in all, my brother.”

Addressing his brother (in prayer, since he was dead), Ambrose wrote, “Before we were inseparable in the body, now we are undivided in affection; for you remain with me, and ever wilt remain.” This saint knew that he was even closer to his brother now than when that man walked the earth.

This saint explained why death is actually a blessing, since without it we would be laboring forever on this earth (like Bill Murray’s character in the movie, “Groundhog Day”). “God did not decree death from the beginning; He prescribed it as a remedy. Human life, because of sin began to experience the burden of wretchedness in unremitting labor and unbearable sorrow. There had to be a limit to its evils; death had to restore what life had forfeited. Without the assistance of grace, immortality is more of a burden than a blessing.”

Still, experiencing death at this time of year is a cross, especially for people who have to bury their own children. Our hearts go out to them — through our prayers, prayers which should then help us see how we can be of assistance to these people, so that they do not feel abandoned by the community (as often happens, since out of fear of saying “the wrong thing,” we just fail to communicate with them at all).

As you can read on page four, Father Stanley Kolasa, SS.CC., had his funeral this week. At it, his confrere, Father Thomas McElroy, SS.CC., said, “We celebrate Jesus Christ as reflected in our lives. People must be able to look at us and see God’s love. We may be the only sign people have of that love.” Father McElroy challenged the overflowing church to heed Jesus’s “command to love,” that it be “seen through you and me.  Jesus’ love requires hard work and requires patience.”

Father McElroy said that he did not need to reread Father Stan’s obituary, but said, “Stan was a great witness in his life to the love of Jesus. We are asked to be witnesses to the Lord. [It] is not an easy thing to live in a world that denies everything He stood for.”

This weekend we celebrate Gaudete Sunday, named for the first word in Latin of the Entrance Antiphon (“Rejoice in the Lord always” [Phil 4:4]).  Father Stan was an artist. Last month we celebrated the funeral of a fellow artist, Sister Gertrude Gaudette, O.P. Her art continues to bring joy to thousands of people who head out to La Salette Shrine during this time of the annual festival of lights. 

On Nov. 27, 2013, Pope Francis dedicated a general audience to the topic of death. He said, “Death affects us all, and it questions us in a profound way, especially when it touches us closely, or when it takes the little ones, the defenseless in such a way that it seems ‘scandalous.’ I have always been struck by the question: why do children suffer? Why do children die?” The pope did not offer an answer to that question, since only God can answer it. 

He did warn of a “concept of death” which “is typical of atheistic thought, which interprets life as a random existence in the world and as a journey toward nothingness. But there is also a practical atheism, which consists in living for one’s own interests alone and living only for earthly things.” As we approach Christmas, that practical atheism is a great temptation for us.  

The pope then asked, “What is the Christian meaning of death? If we look at the most painful moments of our lives, when we have lost a loved one — our parents, a brother, a sister, a spouse, a child, a friend — we realize that even amid the tragedy of loss, even when torn by separation, the conviction arises in the heart that everything cannot be over, that the good given and received has not been pointless. This thirst for life found its true and reliable answer in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ Resurrection does not only give us the certainty of life after death, it also illumines the very mystery of the death of each one of us.”

 The pope reminded us of “Jesus’ invitation to be ever ready, watchful, knowing that life in this world is given to us also in order to prepare us for the afterlife, for life with the Heavenly Father. And for this there is a sure path: preparing oneself well for death, staying close to Jesus. And how do we stay close to Jesus? Through prayer, in the Sacraments and also in the exercise of charity. Let us remember that He is present in the weakest and the most needy. The one who practices mercy does not fear death. And why does he not fear it? Because he looks death in the face in the wounds of his brothers and sisters, and he overcomes it with the love of Jesus Christ.”

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