Death & Life Beyond Death

Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time


I have in the past been invited to the hospital after the birth of a child. And don’t feel bad if you’ve never invited your priest to meet your baby at the hospital. Let’s face it, it’s another hospital visit entirely that most comes to mind. But we have this seldom remembered Catholic tradition of anointing a child with the oil of catechumens as we look ahead to baptism. It has since been added to the actual baptism rite. It is always an occasion of much joy as we give thanks for God’s gifts of life and love. It calls us to seriously take up the task of preparing the child for God’s gift of new life through birth by water and the Holy Spirit. And it reminds us that we are to grow in faith ourselves by constantly responding to the call to live up to the promises of our own baptism.

When I look at a sleeping child in my arms, I often wonder to myself, “Did this child have a clue at all what they were getting into?” I don’t have any memories of that time in my own life. But a college professor once said that being born is definitely a traumatic experience. Imagine the warmth and comfort of the womb, a self-contained universe with everything you would ever want and need, and plenty of it, in total darkness and a total absence of pain or personal responsibility. It is any wonder why anyone would choose differently. And birth is exactly what shatters your world of warmth and comfort. It forces you out into a world of pain and discomfort and consciousness and accountability.

Immediately, you would have to start breathing for yourself. You’ve never had air in your lungs before so that must have been a shock, plus that slap on your bottom was totally rude. Then you get prodded and poked by strange people. They count your fingers and toes. They examine every square inch of your body. Then they wrap you up to keep you warm, the precursor of a future dependence on fads and fashion. Then you are forced to discover the need to eat and drink and digest. And there’s that future trauma more affectionately known as potty-training. Now, you didn’t need to bother with breathing and dressing up and eating and going to the bathroom when you were in your mother’s womb. If you had known then that you would be giving up your pain-free, carefree, perfect existence, would you willingly choose to be born? Unfortunately for us, and most fortunately for our mothers, that was not up to us. And we soon discover that life is not all bad. We would never have imagined what it would be like because life up until then was so limited. We would only have been able to describe it in terms we knew. And knowing what we now know, most of us can safely admit that we would not choose differently, that this existence is so much better, that this life is so much more fulfilling.

But at the conclusion of our present existence, we are again to face a transition into yet another life, another way of being, another reality. It is an experience we all must face. And it often fills us with fear. We call it Death. We fear Death because we see it as the absence of all that is good in this existence: life, movement, emotion, and consciousness. Death is a door behind which lies a world we have never encountered before, from which no one has ever returned to tell us what we might find. So, we make up images of Death that we glean from faith, popular culture, superstition, and fantasy. We call on what we understand to explain what we do not understand. And as long as we do not possess any certainty of the nature of Death and what lies beyond it, we will continue to fear it and to cling to this present existence and this present reality.

But eventually each in our time, we will cross the threshold of Death into a new existence that will shatter the warmth and comfort and contentment to which we have grown accustomed. We will enter a reality that will eclipse our present understanding of goodness, truth, and beauty, a reality that will escape description in the language we now speak, a reality that will defy all our hopes and expectations. It will be like being born all over again. And the convictions we hold with such certainty will turn out to be too limiting, the words we use far too inadequate.

We can understand Jesus’ frustration with the Sadducees, explaining what life after the resurrection will be like. It is not an existence like the present, he tells us. For as long as we think only in terms of what we know, our understanding is limited, and we will be unable to grasp what lies beyond. “We become like angels and are no longer subject to death. We are children of God and of the resurrection.” We will enjoy a new life as those who have gone ahead of us and remained faithful, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, they who continue to live beyond this present limited human reality.

Our faith teaches us that this present life is meaningful because we are preparing for a better life to come. We were created to partake of God’s very life, a sublime reality we cannot even begin to describe or imagine. And if the life of God becomes a priority, the way we live this life must point undeniably to the resurrection. Just as the seven brothers we read about in the second book of Maccabees, we must face our eternal destiny and hold in greater regard what we have been promised, greater than the passing glory of Madison Avenue and Wall Street. And with St. Paul we “pray that we may be delivered from confused and evil people. For not everyone has faith. In the Lord we are confident that [we] are doing and will continue to do whatever [God] enjoins [us]. May the Lord rule your hearts in the love of God and the constancy of Christ.”

Rolo B Castillo © 2022

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