Today's First Reading from the Book of Wisdom reminds us that we are mortal. Death isn't something we like to think about. It isn't pleasant or comfortable, but sometimes we have to remember our own mortality in order to gear our lives in the right direction, namely, toward God.
Death is the first of what Catholic scholars label the “Four Last Things,” death, judgment, Heaven, and hell. In his class on Eschatology, the study of the Four Last Things, Dr. Regis Martin of Franciscan University of Steubenville says that death is both one of the most commonplace events in the world and one of the most terrifying. We human beings fear death because we fear the unknown, and when we die, we stare the unknown directly in the face.
Where did death come from? Today's excerpt from the Book of Wisdom tells us firmly that God did not make death. Instead, He made His creatures to share in His own Being, in His own divine life. But our first parents sinned, and sin has a terrible consequence: death. Adam and Eve sinned and died, and they passed down that original sin and that consequence of death to every generation, every person, that came after them.
Thankfully for us, God had a plan. He didn't leave Adam and Eve and their descendents to be overcome by death, at least not forever. He sent a Savior, His Son, Jesus Christ, Who died on the Cross for us. God Himself entered into death that we might once again share in His divine life.
Christians, then, have a different view of death than other people. For Christians, who place their hope in Jesus, death is, to quote Dr. Martin, “an opening onto something else, a thing greater and larger than anything we heretofore thought of as life...Death is a door through which a man enters upon everlasting life.”
In death, God calls us to come to Him. We leave our bodies behind, but our souls live on, and we meet God face-to-face in the Judgment (the second of the Four Last Things and a topic for another time).
How must we, as Christians, face death? How do we experience what Catholics call “a good death?” Dr. Martin says, “Dying well first of all means living well.” It means living with death in mind, knowing that someday we will face our final moment and that we must be prepared for it. We must take advantage of all the graces and means of salvation God gives us through the Catholic Church: the Eucharist, Confession, the Anointing of the Sick, the other sacraments, prayer, and the moral life. All of these help us grow closer to God, more ready to meet Him when the time comes. For many Catholics, “a good death” also means being conscious until the end, being able to join one's suffering to that of Christ, to pray, to say goodbye to family and friends, to receive the last sacraments, to let go of fear, reach out to God, and embrace everlasting life.
A Prayer for a Good Death: O Jesus, while I adore Your dying breath, I beg You to receive mine. Since I do not know whether I shall have command of my senses when I depart from this world, I offer You even now my last agony and all the sorrows of my passing. I give my soul into Your hands for You are my Father and my Savior. Grant that the last beat of my heart may be an act of perfect love for You. Amen.