Remember the raisins in the dough that we spoke about in the first chapter? Well there is one raisin, or human weakness, that we all share: we shall all one day die. As I said back then, Jesus took on our human weaknesses, one after another. Now, the final weakness was death, and so, Jesus had to face up to this one, as well. It was absolutely essential that he prove to us, beyond all doubt, that we are free. We say "Lord, by your cross and resurrection, you have set us free." And again, "Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life."
There were several times when the Jewish leaders tried to arrest Jesus, but, each time he just walked freely away, or disappeared from their midst. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he asked the mob "Who are you looking for?", they replied "Jesus of Nazareth", and, as he said "I am he", they all fell backwards. In other words, Jesus was showing that he was serious when he had said "No one takes my life from me. I freely lay down my life, and I will take it up again." In other words, they arrested Jesus, and killed him, when he decided that "the time had come", as he told his apostles.
On many occasions, Jesus told his disciples that he would die, but that he would return. He never once mentioned his death, without referring to the fact that he would rise again. Therefore, after his resurrection on Easter morning, he spent the next forty days with his apostles, continually proving to them that he was alive and well, and was certainly not a ghost. He asked for food to eat, he invited Thomas to touch him, he prepared a meal for them on the seashore.
Later on, they were to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth, and a top priority in that witnessing would be the fact that he had passed through death, and returned to clearly prove that there was life beyond the grave. In fact, I sometimes think that the problem Jesus could have with us, is that there is not enough life this side of the grave. Again and again, Jesus appeared to his apostles, leaving them in no doubt that he was, indeed, alive. He walked along the road towards Emmaus with two of them, who failed to recognise him.
There is a certain humorous dimension to this, because he asked them why they were so down-cast, and they were amazed that he hadn't heard what had happened to Jesus, who had been killed a few days previously. They said what made the disappointment worse was that they had thought he was really going to turn out to be somebody worthwhile, who would set them free from their enemies. Once again, the idea of political freedom was the only idea that seems to have stuck with his disciples. Jesus brought them back through the Scriptures, and showed that all of this was foretold by the prophets, and it all had happened as was told. By the time they realised who he was, he disappeared from their sight.
On the morning of the resurrection, Mary Magdalene was crying at the side of the tomb, when Jesus appeared to her. He told her to tell his disciples that he had risen, as he promised, and that he would meet them in Galilee. Imagine the excitement, as Mary, and her friends rushed off to tell the others the good news they had just received. Jesus had overcome the final enemy, death, and he was alive. The words "He is alive" became a clarion call for the disciples, and this would later be central to the message they would have to bring to others.
I sometimes think of the predicament of a preacher or teacher, who is travelling towards Emmaus, rather than to Galilee. The guys on their way to Emmaus had heard a rumour that Jesus was alive, while Mary Magdalene had actually met him! When the apostles were arrested, after Pentecost, they were accused of spreading a rumour that the man the leaders had killed was alive. This was considered very upsetting news to those who thought they had got rid of that man Jesus, who opposed them, and their way of life. What was good news for one group was bad news for the others.
Water represented death for the Hebrews. They had to pass through the waters of the Red Sea, before entering the Promised Land. Jesus walked on water, to prove to the apostles that he had control over death. Peter asked if he might be free from the fear of death, so Jesus invited him to come towards him, walking on the waters. Peter stepped over the side of the boat, and was actually walking on the water, when he took his eyes off Jesus, and became very conscious of the wind and the waves. He lost his nerve, and began to sink. Jesus reached out a hand, and took hold of Peter, saying "Oh why did you doubt, you of little faith."
Later, St. Paul would say that we must keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. He is our Moses, leading us through the desert of life, into the Promised Land. If I am to follow a leader, I must always keep my eye on him. Jesus compared himself to a shepherd. One of my clearest memories of visiting the Holy Land, is that of the shepherds and their sheep. In the sweltering heat, it always impressed me to see a shepherd standing alone among his sheep, as they searched for grass among the sands.
At night-time, the sheep were led into a cave on the hillside, and the shepherd slept at the entrance. In other words, if the sheep were attacked it would literally be over the dead body of the shepherd. On other occasions, I saw a shepherd, with a long line of sheep, in single file, walking behind him. Wherever he went, the sheep followed. It is also a known fact that, in the midst of one of the many sudden thunder storms that happen there on a regular basis, the sheep never look up at the sky ; rather do they look towards the shepherd, and move closer to him.
His listeners would have understood exactly what Jesus meant, because he used examples from their everyday experiences. On Easter morning, the Good Shepherd was bringing his sheep safely through the portals of death. For the Christian, death was no longer to hold any fear. The final enemy had been overcome, and we were free. John the Baptist's father, Zachary, said that when the Messiah would gain the victory, we would be free from fear, and safe from the hands of our foes, so that we could serve the Lord in holiness all the days of our lives, in his presence.
Death, for the Christian, is not just something that happens at the end of life. Life can be a whole series of dyings, every time I put someone before myself, and every time I die to my selfishness, for the sake of another. The cross of Calvary was intended for Barabbas, but Jesus took his place, and Barabbas went free. Barabbas represents all of us. Jesus put us in front of himself. Even while on the cross, he was dying in more ways than physically. He asked the Father to forgive those who were killing him, he asked John to take care of his mother, and he entrusted John to her care. He promised heaven to one of the men on another cross beside him. When he had done all that dying, the physical dying was easy. Death is like a pile of sand at the end of my life, that I can take and sprinkle, a little every day during life, so that, when I get to the end, there'll be no more dying to do. On the other hand, if I wait till the end of my life to die, it will be too late.
A poor beggarman heard that someone called the King of Kings was coming to a certain village. The beggarman wasn't sure what this title could mean, but it obviously implied that he was a very wealthy man. This was an opportunity to do some worthwhile begging, so off he set to meet this wealthy person. There was quite a crowd when he arrived in the village, so he had to wait for many hours before he got a chance to be ushered into the presence of this very important person.
When his turn came, his mind was racing with all he was going to ask for. Before he got a word out of his mouth, the King of Kings said "Well, my good man, and what do you have for me?" "Me? Me?" asked the beggarman. "I don't have anything for you." "But you must" replied the king. "Everybody has something to give." The beggarman insisted that he had nothing to give, while the king was equally insistent that he must have something.
Finally, with great annoyance, and in frustration, the beggarman took a piece of cloth from his pocket, in which he kept some grain, for chewing as he walked around. He opened the cloth, took two grains of wheat, and gave them to the King of Kings, who then turned and walked away. The beggarman was furious. He stomped out of the building, and strode off down the road, feeling that he had been made look like a complete fool.
When he had walked about a mile, he took out the cloth, to get some grains to chew, and was totally amazed to see, among the grains of wheat, two grains of gold. He thumped his forehead in disgust, as he muttered "You fool! Why didn't you give them all away?"
That's what it could feel like at the end of my life, when I realise how much of life I had lived for myself. Only those parts of life which were given away in the service of others have an eternal value.
There is a very true saying that as you live, so shall you die. Life now is but a preparation for what is to follow. We are a pilgrim people, always on our way, never staying more than sixty seconds in any one minute. Life is constantly in a state of flux, and change, and experience is a very good school, even if the fees are often very high. Jesus is travelling the road with us, and if we listen to him, he will guide us along his way. He says that no one comes to the Father except through him. Everybody that ever lived will come face to face with Jesus, at least once, and will have to decide for him, or against him.
About two-thirds of the people in the world die without having heard about Jesus, but, even they, at that moment of death, will be faced with the option, and will be asked to made a decision. They will not arrive there totally unprepared, of course, because even the most primitive cave-man knew there was a God, even though he thought that it was the sun, the wind, or the sky. Everybody that ever lived has had some feeling about a life after death, even if they called it the spirit world, the happy hunting ground, or crossing the Jordan. And everybody has a conscience, just as a dog can look guilty when he does something wrong. Everybody who died before Jesus, were all dressed up, with nowhere to go, as it were, because admission into heaven was not possible until Jesus had returned in triumph. From that moment on, each person is brought face to face with Jesus, and asked to decide.
Nobody, but nobody comes to the Father but through Jesus. He said that he was the gate to the sheep-fold, and there is only one way to enter. There was an accident down the road, and a young lad was killed. Was he ready to meet God? No matter what good or evil he did in life, like the good thief on Calvary, he will be given one last chance to say 'yes'. God is a God of infinite justice, and everybody comes before him with an equal chance of entry into the fullness of his kingdom. For us Christians, our lives are expected to be a whole series of 'yeses', and this is thought of as the best possible preparation for that final 'yes'.
The king was all powerful, and the fool was a fool. One day, the king gave the fool a rod, and told him to hold on to it, and he was to give it away if he ever came across a bigger fool than himself. Many years went by. The king grew old, and was on his death-bed. He sent for his courtiers, his body-guard, and the fool, and he told them that he was about to set off on a long long journey, from which he did not expect to return.
The fool spoke up "Majesty, on other occasions, before you set out on a journey, you always sent servants and courtiers ahead, to prepare for your journey, and your arrival at wherever you were going. Might I ask you what preparations you have made for this particularly long journey?" "Alas," said the king, "I have made no preparations for this journey. I am not at all prepared for it." "Then", said the fool, "take this rod, because, at last, I have found a fool greater than myself."
God is not one who is into "I told you so", but, if he were, he might surely have many opportunities to say this. I often wonder if hiding, hedging, avoiding, and making excuses is a direct result of original sin, because all diets start on Monday, and we are certainly going to take this dying bit very seriously.....some other time. There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.
Therese of Lisieux and Padre Pio said that their real work would begin after they died, and I honestly believe that to be so. Jesus' work, or Mary's work, did not cease when they died. They still continue to look out for us, and to look after us. I had the privilege, some years ago, of celebrating Mass every day with a small group in a Hospice for the dying. I had a continual opportunity to bring many of them to the gates of death, over a two or three-year period. I spoke to most of them about what Therese and Padre Pio had said, and I gave them special 'missions' to take care of, some person or family in a mess, some situation that looked hopeless. I do not, for a moment, think it could be a coincidence, but I always watched, with amazement, to see something good happen in what had been a hopeless situation.
One elderly lady was dying, and she knew a young woman whose life was badly messed up. I asked her to 'adopt' this young woman when she arrived safely home in the next life, as the thief on the cross asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom. Anyhow, naturally, the young woman knew nothing at all about what I had spoken of, nor does she know, to this day. About three weeks after the old lady died, I received a letter from the woman giving me the details of a remarkable dream she had, which had stirred up a whole conversion experience in her soul. The old lady came to her in the dream, and the encounter, and what was said, was so real that, when the young woman woke up, she acted on the advice given, and her life has since turned dramatically around. I have seen this happen on many occasions, to the point where I came to expect it to happen.
I remember promising one young woman that I would do her funeral, but that it would be up to her to 'fix it', because the funeral was going to be in Mayo, and I wasn't even sure I would be in the country at the time. Anyhow, I was in Tralee, beginning a six-day Retreat, when I knew that I should be in Mayo for a funeral that evening and the following morning. I'm glad I do not have the gift of bi-location, of being in two places at the same time, because I often have more than enough problems in any one place, without doubling my trouble. Anyone, just as I wondered how she was going to 'fix' this one, one of the people on Retreat came to tell me that she had a set of videos I had made some time before that, that she had brought them along, and she wondered if the group might have a chance to watch them over the next week. The videos included six talks, before a group in a studio, and the talks covered the basic message of the gospel. I showed her where the video machine was, put her in charge, and went off to Mayo to do the funeral. While I was there, I was also giving six talks to a very enthusiastic group back in Tralee! I could continue with such incidents in a separate book, but I give these few as examples of something that I know to be true.
Grief is the price we pay for love, and if I have any capacity for love, I should always keep a few tissues around. If you never want to cry at a funeral, don't ever love anyone - and that would be a terrible price to pay to avoid a few tears. Jesus cried at the tomb of Lazarus. They were tears of love, and not of despair. I think it is lovely, and very natural that, even though I believe my mother is happy with God, I can cry at her funeral, because I miss her, and life, without her, will never be the same. Funerals are geared more towards the bereaved than the deceased. The readings, homily, etc., are directed to those present, rather than to the deceased. Bereavement is a process, and there is no safe short-cut through it. It is like the amputation of a leg. I will walk again, but it would be foolish to hurry up the process. The very pain is healing, and taking something to numb the pain is only delaying facing up to reality. If I don't cry now, I will scream later.
I remember being in Cobh some years ago when the QE2 visited there. Everybody, but everybody was there. Bands playing, small aircraft hovering overhead, boats of all descriptions escorting her into the harbour. She left very early the following morning, and I had a bird's-eye view from my bedroom window as that majestic giant sailed off towards the horizon. I actually thought of the concept of death, as I saw her disappear over the horizon, knowing that she was still as majestic as ever, and probably, as I was saying "There she goes", someone in Wales was saying "Here she comes." If I may continue with the idea of an ocean liner, by way of finishing this chapter. When a passenger boat comes within sight of Cobh, Southampton, or New York, she is stopped. Then a pilot comes out from the harbour in a tug-boat, climbs on board, and brings her into harbour. Jesus is our pilot, who is willing to come out to meet us at any distance, and to bring us safely home. Home where we will meet all our old friends, and never have to say good-bye again.
The young mother set her feet on the road of life. "Is the way long?" she asked. "Yes", said the guide "and the way is rough, and you will be old before you reach the end of it." But the young mother was happy, as she played with her children, and gathered flowers with them along the way. "Surely" she said "nothing could ever be better than these years." And they moved on, and there was a hill ahead, and the children grew tired, and the mother was tired, but all the time she kept saying "A little further, and we're there."
And they struggled and reached the top, and the children said "Mother, we never could have made it without you." And the mother, when she lay down that night, said "This is a brighter and better day than yesterday, because today I showed my children courage". And the next day there were clouds, clouds of war, hatred, and evil. And the mother said "Lift your eyes. Lift your eyes towards the stars." And they clung to her, to her faith, and to her hope, and they were safe and saved, and that night, when she lay down to sleep, the mother said "This is brighter than the brightest day, because today, I have shown my children God."
And the weeks passed, and the months, and the years. And the mother grew old, and was little and stooped. But her children were strong, and tall, and walked with confidence. When she was tired they carried her, because she was a burden to no one. Finally they came to a gate, with golden gates flung wide. And the mother said "I have reached the end of my journey. Now I know that the end is so much more beautiful than the beginning, because my children can walk with courage, and their children after them. And her children said "Mother, you will always walk with us, even when you have gone through those gates." And they stood and watched her, as she walked on alone, and the gates closed behind her. And her children said "A mother like ours is more than a memory. She is a living presence."