The death of someone is most always experienced as loss. When it is someone we are close to or is a loved one the loss is even greater. Death has a deeply theological significance for Christians. For Christians it is not only a time of loss and grief; it is also a deeply spiritual moment for both the person who has died and for the family.
In the Book of Common Prayer on page 507 we find the following statement:
The liturgy for the dead is an Easter liturgy. It finds all its meaning in the Resurrection. Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we, too, shall be raised. The liturgy, therefore, is characterized by joy, in the certainty that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This joy, however, does not make human grief unchristian. The very love we have for each other in Christ brings deep sorrow when we are parted by death. Jesus himself wept at the grave of his friend. So, while we rejoice that one we love has entered into the nearer presence of our Lord, we sorrow in sympathy with those who mourn.
At burial liturgy we recite the Apostles Creed. This Creed is used at baptisms and by using it here we are connecting our faith in baptismal death and resurrection to the physical death of the person and the hope of their resurrection into everlasting joy. Through the gate of death the Christian actively participates directly in the paschal mystery of Christ: meaning our Lord’s dying and rising.
Reflecting on the death of a Christian affords us the opportunity to reflect on the full understanding of what we mean by death. By this I mean to point out that Christians die twice!
1. In the sacrament of Baptism our first death occurs. St. Paul teaches this in most all his letters. Examples are: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” (Rom 6:3 RSV). The sacrament of Baptism is in the plan of God a true death and the more important of the two deaths. Another great example is “For you have died [meaning in baptism], and your life is hid with Christ in God.” (Col 3:3 RSV). This is key theology for St. Paul. Living now “hidden in Christ” we are free from the domination of Satan and we are able to set our sights upon heavenly things and not to the lower mundane and sinful standards of this fallen world. But living, “hidden in Christ” in this world is never easy. A classic example of St. Paul admonishing the Church to stand firm is here in his letter to the Philippians: “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear omen to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. 29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in Him but also suffer for His sake, 30 engaged in the same conflict which you saw and now hear to be mine.” (Phi 1:27-30RSV) .
This is life “hidden in Christ.”
St Teresa of Avila writes about “persevering to the end” in her “Way of Perfection”
… by making an earnest and most determined resolve not to halt until the goal [eternal life] is reached, whatever may come, whatever may happen, however much effort one needs to make, whoever may complain, whether one dies on the road or has no heart to face the trials one meets, even if the ground gives way under one’s feet.”
2. The second death is our physical death; its when our body and soul separate and physical death occurs. St. John writes of this, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who conquers shall not be hurt by the second death.” (Rev 2:11 RSV). We are to take great comfort in knowing this blessed hope, that our physical death can do us no harm. “For to Thy faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body doth lie in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the Heavens.” (Proper Preface, BCP 349)
- Our first resurrection occurred in the sacrament of baptism (Romans 6:3-11 and Rev 20:6). We have died and we have been raised! In our first death and resurrection our soul was regenerated or “reborn” and sanctifying grace or “new life” was restored fresh to our soul. We are free from the guilt of original sin and we are made in baptism a son or daughter of God through Christ.
- Our second resurrection is the one that shall take place at the end of time, when our body is brought back to life and we shall be complete, body and soul and live with God in everlasting joy.
The “rest of the dead” noted in Revelation 20:5 are those who have not received the sacrament of Baptism. They are not necessarily lost and they may actually attain eternal life. They shall be raised up on the last day, to be judged according to their deeds. If by their deeds they are judged worthy of everlasting joy this too is caused by the merits of Christ. Jesus Christ is the source and summit of all salvation!
Closing: Reflecting on Christian death is never morbid but actually can reveal to us important aspects of our faith. It says for one why we are Christian to begin with. But we who have received new life in Christ, who have been baptized and have been raised up in the faith; we who have been given access to the sacraments and have the privilege of receiving the sacred Body and Blood of Christ; that being the case, we have a moral responsibility to persevere, aided by grace to realize in our life the fruits of redemption.
St. Peter minds us, “For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1Pe 4:17 RSV) Perseverance is so important. Perseverance means growing in faith, growing deeper in theological understanding of the Catholic faith. “In this [perseverance] is love perfected with us, that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as He is so are we in this world.” (1Jo 4:17 RSV)
Let us pray:
Almighty and everlasting God, we yield unto Thee most high praise and hearty thanks for the wonderful grace and virtue declared in all Thy Saints, who have been the choice vessels of Thy grace, and the lights of the world in their several generations; most humbly beseeching Thee to give us grace so to follow the example of their steadfastness in Thy faith, and obedience to Thy holy Commandments, that at the day of the General Resurrection, we, with all those who are of the mystical body of Thy Son, may be set on His right hand, and hear that His most joyful voice: “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Grant this, O Father, for the sake of the same Thy Son Jesus Christ, our only Mediator and Advocate. Amen.