Sermon on Death
By Father Kyle
Under the category of “things you probably would not expect from a priest,” during my time at Our Lady of Peace Church in Erie, during one of our school Masses, I derived much pleasure from telling the students about my bowling ball. You can imagine how much their faces lit up when I told them that it was a transparent ball with a skull in it. I found and bought it online after some searching, and at a local bowling alley, I got the holes drilled into it for my fingers. Bowling is probably one of my favorite hobbies, even though I do not go very often (because of a lack of people who will go with me), and I wanted to get my own custom ball, one that fit my hand and throw and one that would really stand out. Well, it does not fail in this regard. I was very involved with the youth ministry there in my first assignment, and the middle-schoolers got a kick out of watching the skull go round and round down the lane. A priest with a skull bowling ball – how strange is that? Why would I get such a thing? To be honest, I got it because it looked cool, and I wanted people to get a laugh out of it. When some of the youth pressed me with questions, however, it gave me an opportunity to do a little catechesis. I talked to them about death and how we, as Christians, are to look at it and approach it. I told them that because of what Jesus did for us on the cross, death is not something we need to fear. We should not be afraid to think about it or talk about it.
At this point in time, in this month of October, we are approaching the end of the season of Ordinary Time and therefore the end of the liturgical year. In just a few weeks, our nation will celebrate Halloween, but more importantly, we will celebrate in the Church the Solemnity of All Saints and the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (a.k.a All Souls Day). Therefore, I thought it would be fitting to preach this month on what the Church calls the “Four Last Things,” which are death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Today, I will preach on death. We know that God did not create death; it was never a part of creation before the Fall. We brought death into this world through the original sin that our first parents committed when they ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul says that “the wages of sin is death….” (Romans 6:23) By sinning, we made death and decay a reality, not just for ourselves, but also for the rest of visible creation. How could it be otherwise, when we turned away from the Lord who made us, from the very Author of Life? When this happened so very long ago, we became cursed and doomed to death, a tragic fate of our own making, and we lived under the full power of this curse for thousands and thousands of years. Death became our enemy, something to be dreaded. It was our punishment for sin, or to think of it another way, it was the logical outcome of our rebellion against the Creator.
And it would still be nothing more than a punishment and a curse, had it not been for Jesus Christ and His Paschal Mystery. As true God and true man, He endured in His passion more suffering than we could fathom and died on a tree, just as it was from a tree that our first parents sinned and lost the gift of life in paradise. In suffering and dying for us, our Lord conquered sin and death, freeing us from the ancient curse. Paradoxically, the cross, an instrument of cruel torture and death, became the tree of life, and death was transformed from a punishment into a remedy, from an end into a beginning. Death, for the Christian, became a pathway, leading to eternal life, and as such, we could go from fearing and trying to avoid death to welcoming it and even looking forward to it, as St. Paul did. In his letter to the Philippians, while he was in prison, he said, “I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better.” (Philippians 1:23)
While it is natural to fear the unknown (something that we have not yet experienced ourselves), and while we should take our judgement seriously (something I will preach on next weekend), we must realize that death is not the taboo that many people in our secular society have made it out to be. As Christians, we do not need to fear death. In the Office of Readings for All Souls Day in the Liturgy of the Hours, St. Ambrose, in a book he wrote on the death of his brother Satyrus, tells us quite the contrary. “We should have a daily familiarity with death, a daily desire for death. By this kind of detachment our soul must learn to free itself from the desires of the body…It must take on the likeness of death, to avoid the punishment of death.”
He goes on to say, “Christ did not need to die if he did not want to, but he did not look on death as something to be despised, something to be avoided, and he could have found no better means to save us than by dying…Death is then no cause for mourning, for it is the cause of mankind’s salvation.”
And so, people can plan their funerals (hopefully demanding that a funeral Mass be offered for them), make their burial arrangements, and form their wills without anxiety or apprehension. People can talk about the reality of death, reminding themselves of the shortness of our time here on earth and the importance of using it wisely to love and serve God and our neighbor, because people can and should also talk about the joys that follow a holy death. A priest can wear all black clothing on a daily basis, either clerics or a cassock, and wear black vestments for All Souls Day and funerals without the fear of being visually offensive to some who might prefer white ones. And yes, a priest can have a bowling ball with a skull in it, all because of what our Lord Jesus Christ accomplished for us. All praise and glory be to the Victor of the Cross. All praise and glory be to the Resurrection and the Life.