We have been told that the intuitions of an impending death refine our minds and sober our thinking about life. I have read somewhere that people whose days are numbered are forced perhaps by necessity to decide what they really want to do within the remaining time they have on earth.
I’ve met many people and families who deal with death contrarily. Some people rebel against death and look at it as an untimely intrusion, but others just resign themselves to it and do the best they can to welcome it with silence and peace. In our common experience, when we are healthy and relatively comfortable and see no sign of death looming, we tend to say to ourselves, “take your time, drink and be merry!” And in our own irrational ways we brush aside the vital claims of life and put them on the sideline of our concerns. But when the Grim Reaper is knocking on our doors, the concerns that have been floating on the periphery may suddenly steal the spotlight of our priority.
Impending death does not choose for us what our last act should be, but it certainly will make us choose. Some people, on the eve of a perilous battle, may choose to spoil themselves in worldly pleasures. But others would rather contact the object of their religious faith and pray. A man in death row may prefer a satisfying meal before he walks in the death chamber. But another person, facing also a death sentence, may spend his last moments of life talking to a friend or family.
In the case of Dr. Jose Rizal, he chose to write the Mi Ultimo Adios, a poem inspired by the outlook of death. In the case of Samson, his greatest desire before dying is revenge. The blind strongman destroyed the center pillars that pulled the house down on himself and on all the others.
Today, as we celebrate this Christian tradition, our main interest should be to know what Jesus Christ himself did being aware of his own impending death in the cross of Calvary. Let me share with you my outlook in three settings that come to my mind when I contemplate of the Christ that anticipates his death sentence.
First was a gathering which Jesus had wanted to have with his disciples. Leonardo Da Vinci perfectly depicted this scene in arguably his greatest work known as The Last Supper.
Jesus said at the table that he earnestly desired to eat the Passover meal before them. Earnestly desired – that is how he put it manifesting his burning desire to be with his disciples. What made Christ desire to eat with a bunch of flawed individuals? Peter was there, he denied his master thrice. Brothers James and John were there, they asked Jesus to call down fires from heaven to consume the village that did not welcome them. Thomas was there, we now know him as the doubting disciple. Matthew was there, a former corrupt tax-collector. Arguably the worst of them all, Judas Iscariot was there and we all know his role in the biblical account.
And it was to such group that Christ “desired” to eat his final supper. Here we have a divine reasoning for unity against purity.
When we place purity above unity, we tend to expel those we think are not pure enough. Of course, this is not giving discount to purity as we all want to be pure. God also wants us to be pure and his grace is a purifying grace. But let us be reminded that the supreme prayer of Christ is that for all of us to be one.
In various Christian denominations, there are rituals and practices believed to achieve purity of mind and heart. And we can be sure that it is the yearning of God that all of us become pure. But such purity is not a license to exclude the impure.
Today, in the name of purity – whether it be in the context of religion, morality, or politics – we find ourselves divided. We have no fellowship with those who do not think and live the way we do. But the Lord who wants us to be pure is the same Lord who wants us to be one. He is the Lord who on the eve of his death gathered all his disciples in a supper and dramatized his deepest yearnings for unity.
The second setting was a picture of Christ praying in the garden. There, in the presence of his Heavenly Father, he prayed for power and strength.
Jesus the Messiah, the man who never lacked time to pray devoted a portion of his remaining moments before his death in communion with the Almighty.
Many people speedily run in prayer only when death is nigh. But the loveliness and harmony of our own prayer garden cannot be appreciated in an instant visit. For that garden to be truly meaningful, it must be an essential part of our life. We must nurture it, we must cultivate it. We must attend to it daily. We must live a lifestyle of prayer. Then when the storms of life come to us, we will be startled to find ourselves fortified for the trial, and therefore sure to emerge as victors.
To pray is to open ourselves to the redemptive influence of the Almighty. It is to obtain the power that we need in translating our cross into a strength of the soul.
The third thing the Messiah wanted to do before his death was to make a provision for his mother. There is no biblical account of the actual arrangement on this, but his words to his mother Mary while hanging on the cross recapitulates this concern. Jesus told Mary, “behold thy son.” And looking at John his disciple he said, “behold thy mother.” Jesus held death back until he completed this family duty.
His answer to the call of his ministry took him away from the carpenter’s workshop to a risky career. But that career did not take away the child’s love and the son’s duty to his mother.
Doesn’t that speak to us of the heavenly explanation of the common task in the center of great events? Yet how often have we abandoned the commitments of family life because we have become so busy living adult lives. Jesus, while hanging on the cross bearing the burdens of all mankind on his heart. Yet before his last breath, he provided care for his beloved earthly mother.
Of course, as Christians, we are called to give ourselves to the service of mankind. But let us not forget that we have parents who need our love, we have husbands-wives-boyfriends-girlfriends who long for our presence; we have children who hunger for our friendship and affection.
As we observe today the reality of death, may we all be reminded of the real important things that transcends our very existence. May we all desire to imitate the mind of Christ even in the face of an impending death. In the meantime, during this lifetime, I pray that we all obtain ‘life’ in the truest sense of the word and have it to the full.
1 November 2017, City of Manila
Often recalcitrant, but always principled.