When I was in 6th grade, on a beautiful day in September, my best friend’s mother died of cancer. It was September 8, the feast day of the Birth of Mary. My friend’s mother was a faithful Catholic, and her name was Mary. I wanted to believe there was some connection. I wanted to believe that death had meaning and purpose. I wanted to believe that God had not abandoned this family.
This was my first real experience with death. Watching my friend process and accept her mother’s death was an education. I saw the pain in her family, but there was an undercurrent of hope that made it all just bearable. Perhaps some measure of her mother’s own faith remained in the hearts of each member of the family, and they wisely clung to it.
Hope in God does not stop death – it did not stop the death of Jesus – but it provides a fuller perspective on living and dying. It is the horizon that prevents us from becoming totally disoriented in an uncertain world. It is the invitation to believe that the end of a temporal life is but the beginning of an eternal one.
When my grandmother died some years later, I clung to that same Christian hope. I imagined her reuniting with all of her friends and family members who had passed on before her. And I imagined our own reunion in the future. I realized then that when my time came, my own death would be easier because I knew someone was waiting for me on the other side – a family member, someone close to me. I realized that even in death our loved ones serve us. Their death makes our own death easier. They have gone before us to share in the triumph of Christ and the power of his resurrection. With Christ, they say to us, “I go to prepare a place for you…so that where I am, there you may be also” (Jn. 14:3).
In the parish of my youth, tucked away in a side office, there was a cross on the wall. On the cross was a placid but triumphant Christ the King. Arms outstretched on what an old prayer called his “instrument of torture,” his face, his raiment, his body seemed to say, “Take that, death! Look at me! I am healthy and robust! On this cross, I wear a crown! For everlasting!” It was an image of Christian hope, that orienting horizon.
The pain of death is part of life, and we share it with those we love. But our hope is in what comes next, in what we will share with them when our own time comes. Our hope is in the triumph of Christ, the God who raised him from the dead, and the place he has prepared for all of us to be together.
If it were not so, Jesus said, I would have told you (Jn. 14:2).