September 18, 2011
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort, Springfield, Va.
What is the meaning of life and death?
Every culture, and every age seems to make its own attempt
to answer these questions.
In our time and our culture we find a lot of people seeing life in terms of
“quality of life” and “length of life.”
The huge swings in the stock market and the other bad economic news
we keep hearing reminds us how many of us
tend to see life all to often in terms of money and “success.”
But one of the great things about being Christian
is that we don’t have to worry about those things,
because we know the meaning of life and death
–as St. Paul tells us today in the second reading:
“To me, life is Christ, and death is gain.”
This beautiful passage of St. Paul puts the whole Christian perspective on
the meaning of life and death in a nutshell.
While the secular world approaches life looking for its meaning and purpose
in quality or longevity, or “success” or riches.
Christians look at life and see it as something which has meaning
only to the extent its lived as a life with Christ.
As God tells the Prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading:
“my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.”
The world looks at death and sees only the end of life
–perceiving it as either something to be feared and avoided,
or perhaps as a way out of a life that “lacks quality”
or has gone on “too long” or become unsuccessful
But Christians look at death and see the perfection of living life with Christ.
The fundamental truth of the Christian perspective is that life centers on Christ.
We are called to live with him to share in his divine life
every moment in this world.
And we believe that life isn’t meant to end with death
–its meant only to change, to be perfected by sharing in divine life forever.
Thus, St. Paul says: ” life is Christ, and death is gain.”
Life in this world isn’t bad or something to be despised.
Life in this world is good
–but only if its lived with the understanding that its ultimate purpose
is to allow us to grow closer in love to Christ
–realizing that this love is only perfected
when we are in perfect unity with Christ
in the world we enter after death.
This is what St. Paul means when he says:
“If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me…
necessary for your benefit.”
Life is only truly good, truly beautiful, truly “successful” and even truly “fun”
only when its lived in a manner
that’s fruitful for the Lord:
when it is lived in a way that brings about
the will and the love of the Lord in the world.
In short, when it produces, in us and those around us, “holiness.”
But when life in the flesh is over, perfection of this life, and of this holiness
comes for those who have been fruitful, or productive [for Christ]
–those who have labored to live a holy life.
In today’s Gospel, Our Lord reminds us
that its not how long you work for holiness,
but the fact that you do in fact work for holiness
–work for Christ in your life and in the life of the world around you.
When we do this,
he will reward us with a full days wages
when our time on earth has ended.
Notice–a full days wages, where nothing is lacking in our reward,
where all our labor is brought to perfection, completeness,
and fullness in Christ.
So death is nothing to fear, if we have worked hard for the Lord in life.
And life is nothing to be avoided or despised or deliberately terminated
–it is to be lived and enjoyed in the context of working for holiness.
When I was a brand new priest, 15 years ago, part of my first assignment
was as part-time Catholic Chaplain at Alexandria Hospital.
So, several times a week,
I’d take communion,
and give the sacrament of anointing, hear confession, and pray
with the sick and the dying.
I quickly discovered, as any priest will tell you, that its in places like that,
in hospitals and nursing homes and in the homes of the homebound,
that you really see the meaning of life and death,
and Christian productivity yielding the fruit of holiness
and the rewards of eternal life.
In places like that, where people can’t even get out of bed
to go to the bathroom by themselves,
much less enjoy what most people consider a quality lifestyle.
There, where life is not fun by any human understanding.
Where money and worldly success has little use
in the face of loneliness, pain and looming eternity.
There the mystery of Christian life and death take on concrete shape.
There’s one woman I used to visited in the hospital
who in many ways personifies all this.
You may have heard me talk about her before,
because she was truly remarkable.
She was dying a very painful death from cancer.
She couldn’t get out of bed, she could barely move to drink water from a straw.
She had tubes running in and out of her body
—she was at the complete mercy of her caregivers.
And yet she knew that her life still had meaning and purpose.
She had followed the instruction of the Lord that we read in today’s first reading:
“Seek the LORD while he may be found.”
She sought him even by her sick bed—her death bed.
And finding him there she clung to him tightly,
and placed Jesus Christ right in the middle of her life,
accepting her circumstance and seeking ways every day
to fruitfully labor for the Lord
–to produce holiness in this world.
And she succeeded.
Everyday, she became more and more deeply aware
of her complete dependence on God and his grace,
and of his many gifts to her both in her past life
and even her life in the hospital
–especially the great gift of his consoling love.
And she saw her life as producing holiness in the lives of those around her
–like the nurse who began to pray with her every day,
and the other nurse who, after years away from the Church,
started to go to Mass again.
Or like the priests that came to bring her the sacraments
–who she instructed in the ways of Christian living and dying
as they saw her understanding her life of suffering
as fruitful labor to bring the holiness of Christ into this world.
She was not afraid to live—because she saw it as bringing her closer to Christ.
Nor was she afraid to die, because she has great faith and hope
that it would perfect her closeness to Christ.
She understood what St. Paul tells us today:
“Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death.
… I do not know which I shall choose.
I am caught between the two.”
Many people are afraid to die–and they try all sorts of things
to avoid death or even thinking about death.
Many others are afraid to live
–at least live in a way that is difficult or painful
or a failure in the eyes of the world.
So they seek ways to end life
–either slowly in destructive habits, like drugs or alcohol
or sexual promiscuity or self-absorbed lifestyles,
–or quickly in self inflicted death.
We see it all around us
—maybe from time to time we ourselves,
in large ways or small,
fall into this way of thinking.
We succumb to the thinking and the ways of the world,
and forget that
“[God’s] thoughts are not [our] thoughts,
nor are [His] ways [our] ways.”
But for the Christian, this perspective is unacceptable
–because in the life in the flesh we live for Christ,
and in our life after death, we live with him forever.
Is Christ at the center of your understanding of life?
Are you afraid to live, knowing–as a Christian—
that living should be a life with Christ,
and maybe you have to change some things in your life to do that?
Are you afraid to die, knowing–as a Christian—
that perfect and eternal life awaits only those
who have worked for the Lord in this world,
and maybe that doesn’t very accurately describe
what you’ve been doing?
If you are afraid, don’t be.
It’s not too late to live for Christ and go to work for Him.
Because, as today’s Gospel reminds us,
whether we come to work for the Lord
at the dawn or the evening of the day,
as a child or as a senior citizen,
it’s never too late
—as long as the sun has not set on this earthly life of ours.
As we enter now into the mystery of the life and death of Christ,
this mystery of the Mass and Holy Eucharist,
let us pray, now and always,
that we may put aside our worldly ways of thinking and living
and begin to let God’s thoughts become our thoughts
and His ways become our ways.
So that the words of the apostle Paul may truly become our own:
“To me, life is Christ, and death is gain.”