Preparing for the End
None of us can truly claim to have ever experienced death. Sure, few people may have come close to death in one form or another. But even those who are declared clinically dead, who register no pulse or brain wave activity for a moment or so, but who revive eventually, cannot have truly died because death is permanent. Once we die, we finally and permanently move beyond this existence we now enjoy. No turning back. No second chances. Before that time, we can only talk about the end of life as we know it from watching someone else. Any other logical explanation remains at the level of science, when the measurable factors that indicate “life” are no longer present. All other explanations are simply attempts to describe what “mystery” means after having experienced any number of other “mysteries.” It’s simply an attempt, a guess at best. Yet we hang on to such images because we want answers that make sense. We do not want to live with fear. We want to be comforted when we lack understanding. We want our faith sustained by the promise of God whom we trust.
We all know friends and relatives who have returned to God in death. We have seen the effects of the bodily death they experience. And it can terrify us that what happened to them will one day happen to us as well – the loss of physical strength, of mental ability, of memory, knowledge and skill, the deterioration of good health, of good looks and of exceptional talent; the diminishing of natural appetites, of interest in things that used to be significant, of energy for activities that used to be life-enhancing; the eventual pulling away from life’s many activities, from joy, from wonder, from conversation; the onset of stillness, of involuntary reflexes, of frailty. Despite what medical research and statistics indicate, death plays no favorites. Men and women experience death with equal frequency and intensity. Young and old, good and bad, rich and poor, every ethnic group, every religious persuasion, every political affiliation, no one escapes its grasp. It is the one door that takes us out of this life. It is the one door that opens up to eternal life. You can go through that door kicking and screaming. You can go through it with peace of mind and heart. It doesn’t matter how, or when, or why. It matters only that you and I will eventually embrace it. And regardless of what we know of death and its consequences, none of us will know the day nor the hour.
What then will my own death truly be like? What meaning will my own death truly have? These are all legitimate concerns. But who can give us adequate answers? And when we get answers, will we then stop asking any more questions?
We are fast approaching the end of the liturgical year. Next Sunday is the last before we enter once again the season of Advent. The church through the Sunday readings invites us to ponder the end time – not just the end of the world which some people seem intent on predicting, and which none of us might actually ever see, but also the unavoidable end of our own life journey, a reality that one day we will all have to face. We are not encouraging here a fascination for the morbid. Instead, it can be a timely exercise of self-assessment, an occasion to consider where your life is headed, what you have learned from your mistakes, what you intend to accomplish and leave for posterity? It is easy to let the occasion slip us by. We might know of people who face the risks of war daily, of illness, and of job-related hazards. And we cannot be overly concerned ourselves, or we lose our focus, and neglect our all-important and on-going responsibilities. That kind of soul searching is best left to the experts, the theologians, the artists, the clergy. The rest of us, we think, should concern ourselves with living.
But the point of pausing and reflecting on the end time is actually to enhance our living. If we know where we’re headed and what we want to accomplish, directing our energies, our resources and our choices can be so much more productive. If an athlete wants to be a serious contender in the upcoming Olympic games in Rio, he or she can train, diet and exercise with greater focus. If a political candidate intends to be on next year’s ballot, he or she can raise funds and speak to the concerns of the electorate more intentionally. The many images and metaphors of our life’s sure and certain advance toward that transition into eternal life all encourage us to actively participate in that movement. We need to believe God has a plan for us, that God desires our happiness and the fulfillment of our deepest longings. We need to learn how to make good choices. We cannot allow challenges and setbacks to distract us from our goal. We need to learn from our mistakes, be grateful for blessings we receive, and be open to the wisdom of those who travel along the same journey. We need to acknowledge God’s boundless compassion, and that we don’t always live up to our potential. We need to be willing to raise the weak, the fallen and the stranger who walk alongside us. We need to call upon God to assist our efforts and bless our journey.
This past summer, I traveled with a priest friend from Australia to Europe. I had never been before. I knew the general direction we were headed in. My friend had been many times before. I had some vague idea how long the trip would take. I was ready for the kind of weather they have. When I had questions about what to expect, we talked about it. We had a blast visiting churches, museums, and many other famous places. We talked constantly about what we experienced, we laughed and occasionally, we were quiet. If I thought we were lost, I said something. But we figured unfamiliar things out together. We shared our insights and observations along the way. And on many occasions we rejoiced when we encountered wonderful people and wonderful experiences. We both had a great time. And I know now to be more attentive the next time, to expect to find great food, to take as many pictures as I am able, to get enough sleep and bring water, to wear comfortable shoes, to learn a few foreign expressions, for that next time wherever and whenever that might be.
Life is a journey that is not much different. When we think about the end time, we might ask, “Am I prepared to meet God face to face?” Instead, we might ask, “How does my living right now prepare me for where I want to be in the next life?” We don’t prepare for death. Rather, we pay attention to how we live right now by thinking where we want to spend eternity – with God or someplace else. If we need any help with how to live well, we need only look at those who have gone ahead of us, and follow their lead. This past week, I visited three people who have since gone home to God. You don’t start getting ready on the day it’s time to go. If you want to be ready then, you have to start getting ready now. Remember, we know not the day nor the hour.