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Death, Preparation for


Death from the natural point of view is a fearful and terrifying event, for it is the dissolution of the human personality. To grasp its full meaning, however, one must turn to faith and see death as the result of sin (Rom 5.12;H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum [Freiburg 1963] 151112). It is of man's making, not God's. Wisdom expresses the profound and consoling truth: "God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living" (Wis 1.13; cf.2.2324). Moreover, the power of Satan (Jn 8.44; Heb 2.14) and death was broken by its paradoxical overthrow by death. The Word made flesh took on even that which is most terrifying to man and "Death is swallowed up in victory" (1 Cor 15.54). "Dying, he destroyed our death and rising he restored our life" (Preface for Easter).

One's own death now takes on new meaning: it is to be in union with Christ. When and how death may come are God's to determine, but the individual chooses how he is to accept it. He can freely accept God's will, for indeed the most important preparation for death is its willing acceptance. This begins with humble, hopeful, and loving faith, with praying and living the petition "Thy will be done." This requires a spirit of contrition and self-denial. Death is a sacrificial act, one's last; hence a spirit of sacrifice is essential in preparing for it.

There is no better way to prepare for death's sacrifice than association with Christ's Passion, which is "applied to man through the Sacraments" (Aquinas, Summa theologiae 3a, 61.1, ad 3). Each of the Sacraments helps, in a special way, to prepare one to face death without fear. This is best appreciated and applied by participation in the liturgy, teacher of "the true Christian spirit" (Vatican Council II, Constitution on the Liturgy 14). "The liturgy moves the faithful, filled with 'the paschal sacraments,' to be 'one in holiness'. The Eucharist draws the faithful in the compelling love of Christ and sets them on fire" (ibid. 11).

"By Baptism men are plunged into the paschal mystery of Christ" (ibid. 6). Sacramentally, we have died, been buried, and have risen with Christ (see Rom 6.34; Col 3.3; 2 Tm 2.11). Physical death holds no fears; it only effects a fuller sharing in Christ's glory. To face life's daily way of the cross, one has a fuller share in Christ's priesthood and the Spirit of Love. Confirmation gives "the fullness of the Holy Ghost for the spiritual strength which belongs to the perfect age" (Summa theologiae 3a, 72.2). Here is a constant source of strength to face death's ordeal. In the Eucharist, Christians "proclaim the death of the Lord, until he comes" (1 Cor 11.26). It is not just recalling, it is "re-presenting" His death: "The victory and triumph of his death are again made present" (Constitution on the Liturgy, 6). Sharing His priesthood, Christians offer Christ and are also victims who suffer and die with Him. The Eucharist is death to self. Every Communion should prepare for death's eternal union with Christ. Sins make man fearful of divine judgment. Graciously, however, divine mercy is available in Penance. The mercy of the Passion is applied to man. Each confession is a fuller sharing in the paschal mystery. Marriage is to be a constant reflection of the love between Christ and His Church (Eph 5). This Sacrament effecting death to selfishness is a constant preparation for actual death. Sacred Orders makes of man another Christ. Sacrifice and sharing heavenly gifts is his vocation: it is death to self. When sickness takes its toll, as death is near, a man is at his weakest. His is singularly associated with Christ's death; so too, Christ's strength is shared. Even as he goes down into the valley of death, the Anointing of the Sick effects a paradox: "the Lord will raise him up" (Jas 5.15). Incarnate mercy would even accompany him into eternity through Viaticum. He is already prepared for glory. Compline, the Church's night prayer, is a preparation for sleep, so symbolic of death. Indeed every prayer a man says unites his will to God's will, thus preparing him to do so at death. Mary's rosary teaches this in a practical way. Such prayers, liturgical and private, as prelude to heavenly prayer, are effective preparations for a happy death.

Bibliography: a. ligouri, Preparation for Death (New York 1885). m. c. d'arcy, Death and Life (London 1942). j. c. didier, Death and the Christian, tr. p. j. hepburne-scott (New York 1961). f. c. houselander, The Way of the Cross (New York 1955). b. jarrett, No Abiding City (Westminster, Md. 1949). j. h. newman, The Dream of Gerontius (New York 1926). k. rahner, On the Theology of Death, tr. c. h. henkey (Quaestiones disputatae 2; New York 1961). a. s. perret, Toward Our Father's House, tr. r. n. albright (St. Louis 1958). e. h. schillebeeckx, "The Death of a Christian," in his Layman in the Church and Other Essays, tr. from Dutch (New York 1963). b. ulanov, comp., Death (New York 1959). h. van zeller, Death in Other Words (Springfield, Ill.1963).

[p. j. kelly]

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