By Mark Schmidt
Director of Respect Life/Social Justice for the Archdiocese of Dubuque
In the first reading this weekend we hear the story of the creation of Adam and Eve, the moment when God breathed life into our first parents. There is abundance provided for them. They are given the Garden of Eden to enjoy and steward without fear or death. Unfortunately, things quickly change as Adam and Eve are seduced by the serpent, and they choose to disobey God’s command not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In doing so, it is like Adam and Eve were saying to God, “We do not need you. We can do as we please. We can have it all. Death is not for us.” With that act of rejection of God, sin and death entered the world and our relationship with God was forever changed.
When we look around our popular culture we see the effects of this sin. We live in a world where we pretend that we will not die. We cling to youth and avoid conversations about aging, sickness and especially death. Our society repeats over and over, “Death is not for us!”
When I worked as a hospice chaplain I began to realize that many people had spent more time planning a single vacation than they had spent planning for their death. In some ways it is understandable that we avoid these conversations and preparations. They can be unpleasant and even scary, because it requires us to acknowledge our own limitations, our weaknesses, our frailty, our mortality. In order to prepare for death we have to accept death.
Something else I noticed as a hospice chaplain is that when my hospice patients would want to start planning their funeral or share their wishes if they became incapacitated their family members would say, “Stop talking like that. You’re giving up. You’re going to be with us for years to come.” Our society has somehow bought into the serpent’s lie “you certainly will not die!” (Gen. 3:4) We almost believe that as long as we don’t talk about it, or acknowledge it, it won’t happen. We struggle with acceptance and avoid what is unavoidable. Death is unavoidable. As Paul says in the second reading, “Through one man sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all.” (Rom 5:12) Should this cripple us with fear or despair? Hopefully not for, as Augustine said, “We are an Easter People and Alleluia is our song!”
But we cannot get to Easter until we have had Good Friday, and we may not have the strength for Good Friday if we are not prepared for the cross. This is why Lent is such an important time for us. Lent prepares us not only for the death of Christ upon the cross and his resurrection, but our own death and resurrection as well. Just as Christ went out into the wilderness to prepare for his Passion, Lent is a time for us to prepare ourselves whether our death is years away or more immediate. It is never too early to begin preparing for our own death. Christ himself offers us a model for that preparation. He first prepared himself and his disciples for the cross. He wrestled with death throughout his ministry and even more so in the hours before he was crucified. The night before his death he struggled not unlike the rest of us. “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) How many of us have said similar when we reflect on our own death? Just as in Genesis the Garden of Eden is the point where humanity brings sin and death into the world, it is in the Garden of Gethsemane in which the final preparations to conquer sin and death occurred.
Lent calls us to consider what Jesus’ death means for us. We are reminded that without Good Friday there is no Easter. And when Easter does come, we see that Good Friday was not the end for Christ, and death is not the end for us. We are given hope and shown that although death will come to us all, it is not something that we ought to fear because of our hope in the resurrection; through this we can be unburdened from many of the fears surrounding death. We can find freedom and joy in death which leads to new life.
One way we can use Lent to prepare ourselves is to participate in our “Formation for All” session for Lent which reflects on preparing for the end of our lives. It introduces videos and resources on hospice and palliative care, the season of Lent and how it relates to our own death, and also has resources and videos that can be used to educate yourself and others on why doctor prescribed suicide is not an answer to terminal diagnosis or disability. All sessions can be found at dbqarch.org/rlsj/formation.