We’re told two things in life are certain: death and taxes. While some try to avoid the latter, none can avoid the former; all of us die. The passage out of this life is an object of fear, trembling, pain, and suffering. The Christian lens of death, however, propels us to the hope that our final breath on earth isn’t the end; Christ has prepared a place for those who love him.
For many, even for Christians, hope in the face of death seems counterintuitive. Our feeble nature longs to grasp the things we have for as long as possible. We don’t want to let go of familiar creature comforts—the known always seems safer than the unknown. Yet, God has placed a longing on every human heart that will not and cannot be fulfilled on this side of the veil. It is a longing for, as Pope Benedict XVI writes, “a relationship of full communion with the living God.”
We hold out hope that our longing will be fulfilled by Christ. Pope Benedict says we respond to the question of death, “with faith in God, with a gaze of firm hope founded on the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Our hope is not a feeling, nor the result of our own efforts, but confidence rooted in a person. As St. Paul says, “The saying is sure: if we have died with him, we shall also live with him” (2 Tim 2:11). Christ’s cross is the bridge by which we walk into eternity.
The journey from fear to hope takes a lifetime, and one of the primary ways we cultivate hope is through the sacraments (Baptism, Eucharist, and Anointing of the Sick). These avenues of God’s grace help us to see the world as He does and begin eternal life in our souls. We see this first in Baptism. After the ritual is completed, the freshly minted Christian is now “‘a new creature’, an adopted son of God, who has become a ‘partaker of the divine nature,’ member of Christ and co-heir with him, and a temple of the Holy Spirit.” Baptism gives us hope of eternal life because we have become a partaker in God’s life—he lives in our soul. Death, therefore, isn’t the last word for temples of the Holy Spirit.
The Eucharist can also help alleviate the fear of death and stir up hope within us. In St. John’s Gospel, Jesus declares “he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (Jn 6:54). Through the miracle of the Mass, ordinary bread and wine are transformed into Christ’s body and blood, and we who partake in that feast have a share of Christ’s life. The Eucharist invites us to hope in Christ because “Those who feed on Christ in the Eucharist need not wait until the hereafter to receive eternal life: they already possess it on earth”. Why should we fear death when we’ve already tasted the sweetness of eternal life?
Finally, in the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, the Church offers a healing balm in our final moments of life. From the Church’s infancy, she prayed with and anointed the sick with oil (Jas 5:14-15). That tradition continues today whereby the sick receive the grace of “strengthening, peace, and courage to overcome the difficulties that go with the condition of serious illness of the frailty of old age.” When the fear of death is upon us, the Church offers Christ’s peace to accompany us in our final moments; in the midst of pain, the Church offers hope of salvation. For the Christian, then, death does not have the final answer, Christ does. And, we who live in him will live forever.
For more on Christian death and the four last things, check out this recent episode of The Inner Life.