For those who have spent any time in school, it is a universal experience. On the cusp of final exams, you perform the “what’s the worst I can do and still get an A?” calculation. Or if you don’t have an A, you’ll ask “what will my grade be if I get 100%?”. Crunching the numbers, the study plan develops accordingly. Outside of the academic arena this approach can get us in trouble—especially when we apply a similar pattern of thinking to life’s final exam, death. We assume that if we have performed well during the semester of life, then death will be a breeze. Not only does this attitude ignore the tremendous temptations that await us, but it fails to discern the truly Christian meaning of death, or more to the point, the meaning of life. For a Christian the meaning of life is dying well.
When St. Paul was being held captive in Rome, he penned his great opus on joy to the Church in Philippi. Written during his first imprisonment in Babylon (c.f. 1 Pt 5:13), the Apostle reflected upon his own approach to death. But rather than performing the “end of semester calculus” he “forgets what lies behind straining forward to what lies ahead” (Phil 3:14). In other words, St. Paul eschews the cruise control and sprints all the way through the finish line.
This attitude is antithetical to the spirit of the world which confronts death in one of two ways. First there is the mode of distraction. It looms in the back of our minds, but as something we will deal with later. Meanwhile we come up with creative ways to avoid thinking about it. As Pascal maintains, “we run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us seeing it.” We know it is inevitable, but we hope it catches us by surprise and “peacefully”. Second there is the wisdom of pop-psychology which summons us to “accept it.” Paradoxically this type of acceptance is a denial. Like its proverbial doppelganger, taxes, we simply treat it as something to be planned around and cheated.
Planning for Death
Scripture on the other hand tells us to plan for death. As the Book of Sirach tells us, “Remember the Last Things and you will never sin” (Sir 7:36). Biblically speaking, to remember is not simply to keep it in the back of our mind or to “accept it” but to make it a present reality. Knowing you are going to die is one thing, knowing how you will die is quite another. Very likely we have no knowledge of the external circumstances but we can rehearse the interior dispositions that will accompany our deaths. Just as we plan fiscally for our deaths with life insurance and a will, we should plan physically by preparing our souls, making death a testament.
In order to hit the target, we must first distinguish what we are aiming at. The goal is, as St. Paul tells the Romans, to be united to Christ in a “death like His” (Rom 6:5). Our own death, not surprisingly, finds meaning in His Passion. Like a lamb being led to slaughter, Our Lord was silent in His sufferings. The only time that Christ lets out a cry of anguish during His Passion is at the moment of His death. The agony of His death is so keen that He could not remain silent. The cry of anguish was proceeded by His last words—“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” That is, Christ the Priest, has made a definitive offering of the pain of death to the Father. A “death like His” is one that has been offered to the Father.
Life is not really pass/fail. We run through the finish line because in death we have something, perhaps our greatest something, to offer to the Father. Death ceases to be a punishment and becomes a true offering of our lives to God. Death, when offered in union with Christ, becomes the pathway to Life. It is when we receive the fullest share in the priesthood of Christ and in turn conform ourselves more fully to Him as victim. It is only at death that we can truly offer our life to God—no other person, even Christ Himself, can do that for us.
A Priestly Annointing for Death
To prepare us for the greatest of our priestly tasks, the Church “completes the holy anointings that mark the whole Christian life…completing our conformity to the death and Resurrection of Christ, just as Baptism began it” (CCC 1523) in the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. This Sacrament, even though it is often touted as a Sacrament of Healing, is first and foremost a priestly anointing so that “the sick person receives the strength and the gift of uniting himself more closely to Christ’s Passion: in a certain way he is consecrated to bear fruit by configuration to the Savior’s redemptive Passion. Suffering, a consequence of original sin, acquires a new meaning; it becomes a participation in the saving work of Jesus” (CCC 1521).
A proper understanding of death as primarily a priestly occupation, enables the Christian, even when facing great bodily pains surrounding death, can remain spiritually joyful. God loves a cheerful giver. Unfortunately this aspect of death as a definitive offering has been lost to the prevailing culture. We collectively accept the wine and myrrh thinking we can anesthetize death, depriving the person of their opportunity to give their life to God. This is also why euthanasia is the very opposite of mercy, robbing the person of the only true gift they have to offer to God.
Seeing the Sacrament of the Anointing as an anointing for a good death also helps bring out another important facet of death. The dying person often sees himself as a burden upon other people, especially his loved ones. But the Church says that there is an Ecclesial grace attached to the Sacrament such that the “sick who receive this sacrament, ‘by freely uniting themselves to the passion and death of Christ,’ ‘contribute to the good of the People of God.’ By celebrating this sacrament the Church, in the communion of saints, intercedes for the benefit of the sick person, and he, for his part, though the grace of this sacrament, contributes to the sanctification of the Church and to the good of all men for whom the Church suffers and offers herself through Christ to God the Father” (CCC 1522). By uniting themselves to Christ in a “death like His,” the sick man finds joy, able to say with St. Paul, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church…” (Col 1:24). Far from being a burden, the sick actually lighten the burden on the other members of Christ body.
The great spiritual masters of the Church all speak of the art of dying well. Like any art, it can only be done well when it is practiced and prepared for. Remember death and you will do well in life.