For God formed man to be imperishable; the image of his own nature he made him.
– Wisdom 1:14
When St. Francis of Assisi was told by his physician that he had but a few weeks at most to live, he is reported to have cried out almost in joy, “Welcome Sister Death!” The great saint had by then been suffering terribly for some time, not only from a general failure of his health, but also from the holy stigmata which he had received many years before, and which was causing him increasingly great physical pain. Death then, was surely a relief for the poor man from his long sufferings in this world, but this alone cannot fully explain his attitude toward death which is so curtly expressed in that mysterious phrase, “Sister Death.”
Death has this strange ambiguity about it, and not just for a great saint like Francis but for any Christian whose faith is sound. Sound faith makes Christians think of death in terms the world at large simply cannot understand. We understand death, certainly, to be an evil in itself, not created by God as Wisdom assures us, but the result of Original Sin. But for faith-filled Christians, death is, nonetheless, not simply an evil, but an evil which has been transformed by Jesus Christ into a positive reality for the Christian, a true good in the supernatural order. This is surely what he is expressing when he refers to death as “Sister Death.”
Now a non-Christian, even a pagan, might be able to welcome death as a kind of “benefit” when it is an escape from terrible suffering in this world; but that would not make death a positive thing, something that has the character of a good, but it would be only the lesser of two evils. But for St. Francis, death was more than that, it was something to be embraced when it’s time had come, positively welcomed, whatever the circumstances of life, and that is what he meant when he addressed death, as “Sister Death.” It was but his expression of the Christian faith that molded his outlook on everything, including death itself, the same faith that should mold our attitudes toward life and death.
Our first reading today declares death to be an evil in the order of creation, introduced not by the Creator, but by the rebellion of the creature made in the image of the Creator. God is all life, life with no mixture of anything that is evil, anything even remotely related to what we know as death. Man was created to be imperishable because man was created as God’s true image, and God is imperishable; so only the gift of life was at the heart of God’s act of creation. Man was meant to given glory to God as the living image of God in creation. So death was never part of that divine plan. Death was caused not by the Creator but by man’s refusal to be the true image of his creator, the image of the living God. Death was caused by sin. When man sinned, he introduced death into God’s good creation, and death always remains an evil on the level of nature itself, something man naturally and rightly abhors as a creature who was made for life, unending life.
But for the Christian, even death itself has been transformed by the saving mission of Jesus Christ who is the Lord of Life. We believe, as Christians, that death has been conquered and transformed by the Lord of Life. In many ways, Jesus showed us his own abhorrence of death as a natural reality. He raised the dead back to life; he wept at the death of Lazarus, he sweat blood in the Garden of Gethsemane as he prepared himself for the Cross on which he would die for our sins. As the new Adam, he hated death more than any man, for he did not bear the weight of his own sins, but the weight of ours which merit death. He was pure innocence, pure life as God had created the first Adam; death had no claim on him.
But the Christian doctrine of redemption involves a total transformation of man, bringing good out the evil caused by man’s Original Sin, the punishment of death, which by Christ’s cross is made to yield to life, indeed become the very means by which Christ will restore man to his original relationship to God, as the living image of the imperishable deity. The Great Father of the Church, St. Irenaeus of Lyon, taught this already in the 2nd Century when he wrote, “Life in man is the glory of God; the life of man is the vision of God.”
What a mystery that God should choose to use death, the very punishment for sin, to be the vehicle to restore this imperishable Life of God to man. When Jesus died on the Cross, his death conquered death and produced an effect which is the opposite of death. His death, on the level of nature, produced an effect that is not only the opposite of death – life – but did so on the level of the supernatural, for it did not cause a natural life to be restored, but the life of grace, an infinitely higher order of life, the life which is God’s life in the human soul.
But this mystery of death producing life does not end with the death and resurrection of Jesus. Christians do not escape death any more than they escape suffering in this world. What happens is understandable only in terms of what happened in the case of Jesus, the Lord of Life. We die, but our death is not an escape from something, like the suicide of euthanasia, but a transformation into something even greater, a passage into the Life that never ends, the Life that was but planted as a seed in our Baptism, but can only come to full blossom as the result of our death, the passage from one life to another, from the lesser to the greater. It was this holy thought that filled St. Francs with such joy when at last his time had come to make that blessed passage to Life Eternal, and he welcomed the means for this passage by referring to it as his sister, “welcome Sister Death.”
Unbelievers only abhor death and can find nothing really good to say about this reality. At best, the godless praise death only in despair, as a kind of lesser evil, an escape from a life too painful to bear, but not as a passage to anything else. Some half-believing Christians today sometimes seem to mimic this attitude of total unbelief in their attitude toward death. They do not think of death as “Sister Death” because they no longer have a supernatural vision of life and death. The half-Christian does not think of their real life as the Life received in Baptism, the Life that cannot be destroyed by death, but only ushered in fully by death. They do not think of death as “Sister Death” because they rarely think of Christ as “Brother Life.” St. Francis thought of little else, and the man or woman who shares the same faith is more like Francis than their contemporaries who believe nothing of this, and for that reason, he or she can say with St. Paul, or St. Francis, O Death where is thy sting.” If we truly believe that Christ is Life, and that He has transformed death itself in to a gateway to Life, then this will also be our faith filled response to death, when at last God chooses to call us to share in His eternal, imperishable and fully beatifying Life: “Welcome Sister Death!”