Riddled with Faith
On his eighty-first birthday in 1962, Saint John XXIII said, “Any day is a good day to be born and any day is a good day to die.” Six months later, he was dead.
On the other hand, according to Margaret Mitchell, there’s never a convenient time for “death and taxes and childbirth.” Nevertheless, some people may evade taxes, and others may embrace childbirth—but no one eludes death. Not only is death inescapable, it’s also indiscriminate—a fact borne out in the current pandemic. It’s the great equalizer: “Death makes equal the high and low,” stated John Haywood. As the expression goes, “All men are cremated equal.”
I recall paying my respects at the burial site of Fr. Bernard Häring (1912–1998)—a world-renowned moral theologian, teacher, and prolific author—at a Redemptorist cemetery in Bavaria, Germany. The typical information was etched on his tombstone, along with the succinct word “professor” that belied Häring’s profound impact on the Church. Yet, he was given no preferential treatment to his other confreres buried alongside him, whether their life work was summarized by the singular words “pastor” or “porter.”
For me, closer to home is a historic cemetery on the grounds of Liguori, Missouri, where more than 300 Redemptorists are buried—some born in the early nineteenth century. In winter, the orderly rows of granite tombstones glisten after a fresh snowfall, and icicles dangle from the crossbeam of a prominent crucifix. When the alabaster snow is half-melted and the crystalline icicles drip like a leaky faucet, Henry David Thoreau’s question comes to mind: “What is man but a mass of thawing clay?”
To existential questions about the transitory nature of life, a Church document written in 1965 responds:
“It is in the face of death that the riddle of human existence grows most acute. Not only is man tormented by pain and by the advancing deterioration of his body, but even more so by a dread of perpetual extinction….He rebels against death because he bears in himself an eternal seed which cannot be reduced to sheer matter…for prolongation of biological life is unable to satisfy that desire for higher life which is inescapably lodged in his breast” (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World [Gaudium et Spes], 18).
While death is inescapable, also “inescapably lodged” in us is the desire for a divine afterlife. Moreover, states Gaudium et Spes, a solid faith melts away our doubt to nurture the seed of eternity planted in the human soul:
“For God has called man…so that with his entire being he might be joined to Him in an endless sharing of a divine life beyond all corruption. Christ won this victory when He rose to life, for by His death, He freed man from death. Hence to every thoughtful man a solidly established faith provides the answer to his anxiety about what the future holds for him. At the same time faith gives him the power to be united in Christ with his loved ones who have already been snatched away by death; faith arouses the hope that they have found true life with God” (GS 18).
Thus, the paradoxical riddle our merciful Savior solved by his resurrection is that we’re fully alive after we’re faithfully dead!