Homily for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

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Fear of death

As a priest, I celebrate alot of funerals. Every time I stand at the foot of a grave and watch the coffin being lowered into the ground, the same thought occurs to me: “One day that will be me.” One day that will be you too. That you and I will die is absolutely certain. Whether it’s today or in ten years, by freak-accident, illness, or old-age - you are going to die.
Our earthly lives are temporal and finite. As with all other life on earth, human life begins at a definite point (conception), undergoes a time of growing and aging, and then ends at a definite point. Death ends earthly life.
Death causes us great unease. The Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes reflects upon our fear of death. “It is in the face of death that the riddle of human existence grows 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 utter ruin and total disappearance of his own person… All the endeavours of technology, though useful in the extreme, cannot calm his anxiety.” Fear of death helps, I think, explain the way we have responded to COVID. Establishing a standard mortality rate for COVID is extremely difficult because it is impacted by a number of changing factors. Age, pre-existing health conditions, population density, the intensity of the outbreak, and the quality of care available all change the risk of death. An elderly person with a heart condition would have a higher risk of death from COVID than a young person with no underlying health conditions. The average mortality rate for COVID is somewhere between 1-3% percent. Fear of a 1-3% risk has caused us to act in the most debasing ways: closing down whole economies; depriving people of liberty, income and education; inflicting immense emotional and psychological pain upon people, especially the elderly and sick, through isolation. Sometimes I want to run into the street and shout: “This life has a 100% death rate!”

Life, not death, was God’s plan for us

Death causes us such anxiety because it was not part of God’s original plan for humanity. As the Book of Wisdom explains: “Death was not God’s doing, He takes no pleasure in the extinction of the living. To live - for this He created all.” God is the source, origin and giver of all life. This is why we call God ‘Father’. A father is one who gives life. Humankind is made in the image of the God of life: “God did make man imperishable, He made Him in the image of His own nature.” God’s original plan was that humanity would live forever, just like Him.
Death was introduced into creation through Original Sin. Again, the Book of Wisdom explains: “It was the devil’s envy that brought death into the world.” Adam and Eve comitted the Original Sin when they turned against God in the Garden of Eden. By turning against God, Adam and Eve separate themselves for God. While the book of Genesis relates that God orders Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, it is really they who choose to leave the Garden by their rejection of God. If God is the source, origin and giver of all life, then rejection of, and separation from, God entails rejection of, and separation from, life itself. By choosing to reject God, Adam and Eve choose to reject life. It was not God, but humanity, who introduced death into creation. Until about two-thousand years ago, death was indeed the final end of man.
The Father refused to leave us in this condition. He sent His Son to transform death and break its finality. By submitting to death, the consequence of sin, even though he was without sin, Jesus literally broke death. This gives death a new positive meaning for those who believe in and follow Jesus. Through Baptism, the Christian has already ‘died with Christ’ and begun to share eternal life through grace. For the Christian in a state of grace, physical death completes this ‘dying with Christ’ and initiates them defintively into unending life. Reflecting on death, Saint Teresa of Avila wrote: “I want to see God and, in order to see him, I must die.” Similarly, on her deathbed Saint Therese of Lisieux said: “I am not dying: I am entering life.” For those who live in Christ, death ought not be a cause of anxiety but of peace.

Prepare for death

Earthly life is the time of grace and mercy given by God so we can choose our ultimate destiny - eternal life or eternal death. Physical death brings this time to a close and seals our eternal destiny. The Church, therefore, encourages us to prepare ourselves for the hour of death. The most important preparation we can make for death is to avoid sin and persevere in a state of friendship with God. The soul in a state of grace, free from mortal sin, already enjoys a foretaste of eternal life. By contrast, the soul that is in a state of mortal sin is separated from God and experiences a foretaste of the eternal death of Hell. This is why Confession is so important. Confession of mortal sins restores us to the life of grace and regular confession of venial sins refines and perfects the life of grace. Living in a state of grace is the best preparation for death, which can come like a thief in the night.
Reception of the sacraments and the apostolic pardon in the last moments of our life is another very important way to prepare for death. In my previous parish, we had two big hospitals and I visited many visited many deathbeds. One day I received a call to attend to one of our parishioners, a woman of great faith, who had a stroke and was dying. Doctors say that the last faculty to fail is hearing, so I always make sure to speak loudly into the dying person’s ear when I arrive so they know the priest has come. I offered the various prayers, concluding with the Prayer of Commendation: “Go forth, Christian soul, from this world in the name of God the almighty Father, who created you, in the name of Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, who suffered for you, in the name of the Holy Spirit, who was poured out upon you, go forth, faithful Christian. May you live in peace this day, may your home be with God in Sion, with Mary, the virgin Mother of God, with Joseph, and all the angels and saints. Amen.” At that moment, she died.
In an age where medical care often means we are unconscious in our last moments, and where our family don’t necessarily share our faith, it is important we make sure our family, friends and medical team know that we want a priest called to our deathbed. This is what Jairus does in the Gospel. As his daughter is dying, Jairus calls for Jesus. By the time Jesus arrives, the girl is dead. The relatives are “weeping and wailing unrestrainedly.” Jesus rebukes their lack of faith in his power over death: “Why all this commotion and crying? The child is not dead, but asleep!” He takes the child by the hand, tells her to get up, and she gets up at once. In the same way, it is Jesus who visits, strengthens and sanctifies the dying soul through the priest and the sacraments. As the priest applies the oil of anointing to the hands of the dying person, Jesus reaches out to take them by the hand, and as the priest speaks the words of absolution and pardon, Jesus himself speaks: “Why all this commotion and crying? The child is not dead, but asleep!”
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