Supposedly we are different from other animals because we have the intellect to contemplate our own death. We might be able to contemplate it intellectually, but I am not so sure that we believe it. We all know that “life is a terminal condition” (to quote the bumper sticker) and that everyone dies someday. It is just that… the day is always in the far future – certainly no need to think about something so unsettling now. Somehow death seems so unreal. After all, in our entire life experience we have never died, right?
This generalization does not apply to everyone. Some people have had so-called “near death experiences.” Others know, based on sound medical assessment, that their time is very short. Folks in these circumstances might be able to fully grasp the reality of their death. Then again, many do not.
What is death anyway? It could be the end – the final end of everything – the point at which our consciousness, our soul, ceases to exist. I have a very good, non-Christian friend who sadly believes that. If death is the end, fearing it makes good sense.
Some people are not sure what happens. The 1970’s band Blood, Sweat & Tears penned a lyric that said “I can swear there ain’t no heaven but I pray their ain’t no hell.” The label for such folks is agnostic, but some professed Christians think like this too.
As faithful Catholics (and other Christians), we know the good news! Jesus died for our sins so that we may have eternal life. Our very existence does not have to end at death. We do not have to fear death if we accept God’s greatest gift.
Accepting Jesus means following him. There are fine, theological points that separate Christians from each other. The sola fide (faith alone) crowd – despite the literal meaning – do not actually believe that by merely professing faith once, you are “good to go.” You will follow God’s will if you truly have faith. In the Catholic concept of the Economy of Salvation, good works are expected – not to earn salvation but more as a manifestation of faith. While this is over-simplifying each position, the general beliefs and results are essentially the same.
Far more important than Protestant vs. Catholic differences is how (or even if) we Christians actually live our Christian faith. As Catholics, we believe we have the fullness of the faith, the complete truth, the entire framework and the tools Jesus left for us (the sacraments, authority of the Magisterium, Holy Scripture AND Sacred Tradition). This only makes it easier to live as a follower of Jesus, nothing more. Our mission as Christians, simply, is to love God and each other. Everything else follows from that.
I have often thought about people of great wealth or great accomplishment. When they died, everything they worked for was left behind. So it will be with us. Our houses, cars, flat screen TVs, favorite clothes, professional achievements… all left. Sirach wrote in the Old Testament (Protestants: Martin Luther removed this from the Holy Bible in the 1400s):
O death! how bitter the thought of you for the man at peace amid his possessions, For the man unruffled and always successful, who still can enjoy life’s pleasures. O death! how welcome your sentence to the weak man of failing strength, Tottering and always rebuffed, with no more sight, with vanished hope. Fear not death’s decree for you; remember, it embraces those before you, and those after. Thus God has ordained for all flesh; why then should you reject the will of the Most High? Whether one has lived a thousand years, a hundred, or ten, in the nether world he has no claim on life.
What are your priorities? If being Christian were a crime, would there be enough evidence to convict you? Your death is certain. What happens then depends on what you do now.