Conquered

I sometimes forget that Jesus has conquered death. Well, I don’t really ever intellectually forget, but I certainly don’t live like it all the time. There are days when I get tunnel-vision and I fall into the temptation to believe the lie that a certain problem or situation is “just too much.” I don’t see the way out, and I forget that He is the way. Praise Jesus that He chose to conquer sin and death out of His undying love for us, out of His desire for us to spend eternity with Him in Heaven.

Maybe someone out there, like me, needs the reminder today that Jesus conquered death. What does this mean for us? That nothing is too great or too impossible for our Lord. If He can conquer death, something that is not possible for a human being to just do on their own, He can conquer all the other things in your life that feel like little deaths. He wants to, because He wants to be with you forever. The Lord is constantly loving you and trying to capture your attention with His immense tenderness and mercy.

Because of Jesus, death does not have the final word over our existence. “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thes 4:14). What a beautiful reality of our faith. There is so much more than we can see, so many glories that God intensely desires to share with us. With Heaven as our conscious goal each day, everything shifts into place. We can be free to live fully as God is calling us to, without holding back from Him and without fear. We can love others deeply and boldly as Christ loves us. We can have joy and peace in the face of challenges and pain because we know that “we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thes 4:17) and that every last bit of death, pain, and suffering were slayed by our almighty God.

“I have told you this so that you might have peace in me. In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world.” -John 16:33

The Final Trial

“Doomsday is coming!  Doomsday is coming!” the grim voice intoned loudly from the radio by my Grandfather’s chair.  This dire warning was repeated at frequent intervals throughout the weekend.  I asked, somewhat timidly, what “doomsday” was, and an older cousin gleefully told me about the End of the World.  I remember thinking that the adults were taking it awfully casually, continuing to joke and chat as if there were no big deal.  Even at age six, I thought there ought to be some sort of Preparation for such an event.

We returned home from our visit and the impending apocalypse was momentarily forgotten.  Until the following winter, when my (other) grandfather passed away and I attended his wake and funeral.

I still remember how cold it was that January day, as the drops of holy water froze in mid-air as they were sprinkled on the flower laden casket to be lowered into the ground.  I remember the casket itself, and how the night before at the wake, I had seen my Grandfather’s body, lying stately and still.  I was not disturbed, as some might worry, at seeing his body.  I was, however, secretly unsettled by seeing only half of it.

My instinct to prepare for “the End” again kicked in, and in the weeks after the funeral I would lie in bed after my parents had left the room, solemn and still like my Grandfather, my hands neatly folded above the crease in my sheets and blankets.  I kept these morbid contemplations to myself, until one day my concerns got the better of me.  “Mom, I think I am ready to die,” seven-year-old-me confided to my rather shocked mother.  “Except for one part….Why do they have to cut your legs off?”

If I was relieved to learn that Grandpa’s legs were not missing but merely concealed by the closed half of the casket, I was even more amused to learn, decades later, that the Doomsday proclamations of my childhood memory were in fact nothing more than a radio commercial.  As I grew older, my fear of death was eclipsed by other more pressing concerns—fear of embarrassing myself in public, for example, or of forgetting something necessary and important, like homework or a bathing suit.

The idea of preparation for judgment, however, stuck with me.

“If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”  The bumper sticker asked a question that deeply intrigued me.  I had been fed on martyr stories from a young age (which no doubt played well with my other morbid fascinations) and I knew which side I wanted to be on in the inevitable persecutions to come.

I set about, courageously at times, creating “evidence” that would prove my worthiness to God and man.  At first this meant being good.  Later, it meant good works: standing up for what was right, even when it wasn’t popular, fighting to effect change in the world, advocating for the needy and oppressed.  I adopted many good causes, working tirelessly throughout my teen years into adulthood.  I spent hours volunteering, running projects, making good things happen so that I could be a good Christian.

It is only in recent years that I have been struck by a profound realization: it is not good works that distinguishes followers of Christ.  Let’s be honest—our secular counterparts do many of the same things, and often better (with better funds, with more polish, with further reach).

What distinguishes the Christians is what they don’t do—what they give to God.  I realized this one morning when I was pressed for time with one of my many worthy projects.  I was sorely tempted to cancel my appointment with God, to skip my prayer time, so I would have more time to work on helping out.

But, I realized, if I am really a Christian—if God is first in my life, if I really believe He is in control, then my prayer time “doing nothing” is more productive than my “work time.”  Do I believe this?  Do I live this?

In today’s Gospel, Jesus warns that the centerpiece of the Jewish religion, the glorious temple in Jerusalem, will fall into rubble: “All that you see here–the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.”  Jesus doesn’t give advice on rebuilding or making do without.  His only commentary: “Do not be terrified.”  He then warns of false prophets that will come as the end draws near.  His advice?  “Do not be deceived.”

There is no preparation, no list of tasks for avoiding fear and deception.  Only intimacy with Christ can protect us against fear and deception in our lives and hearts.

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Image credit:  © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro /  from Wikimedia Commons

 

Memento Mori

The souls of the just are in the hand of God,
and no torment shall touch them.
They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead;
and their passing away was thought an affliction
and their going forth from us, utter destruction.
But they are in peace.
—Wisdom 3:1–3

In my catechism class this week, I was teaching about the saints, and my students all wanted to find out which saint’s feast day fell on their birthday. One girl said, “My birthday’s November 2. What feast day is that?”

“Oh, that’s All Souls Day! It’s when we pray for the souls in purgatory,” I answered.

Disappointed, she replied, “That’s…kind of morbid.”

I can understand her reaction—it’s hard to get excited about reflecting on death, especially as a kid on your birthday. It’s a topic that most of us avoid thinking about, because it makes us feel uncomfortable. But there has long been a Catholic tradition of meditating on death, not as some kind of penance or self-imposed misery, but rather as a way to transform our fear of death into hope in the Resurrection.

Memento mori—“Remember your death”—is a refrain to keep us grounded amid the distractions of this world. Thinking about death does not seem appealing to us, but ignoring it will not make it go away. Death is an inevitable reality, and it’s not something we can control. But if we approach it from a perspective of Christian hope, deeply rooted in the promises Christ has made to us, we will begin to see that we don’t have to be so fearful of death. It is more of a beginning than an ending, an obscure mystery that only begins to make any sense to us when we see it through the lens of the Gospel. Meditating on death is itself an act of hope: that as we look more deeply into this mystery, there will be more to discover than bleak, existential materialism. There will be redemption and rebirth.

Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble, a young sister with the Daughters of Saint Paul, has been keeping a ceramic skull on her desk for the past year as a reminder of death and tweeting about Memento Mori each day. She says:

Death, I think, is a very, very unpleasant topic, especially if you don’t believe in God. When I was an atheist, it was something I definitely did not want to think about because it’s the annihilation of the self. But for people of faith, it has a totally different dimension. We’re able to think about the reality of death and how it’s been transformed by Jesus.

Meditating on death not only lessens our fear; it also increases our sense of urgency to answer the callings God has given us. We are called to become saints, and we have no time to waste. We can go forward to carry out this calling filled with joy, not with fear, confident that if we are united with Christ in death, we will also be united with Him in resurrection.

For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.
—Romans 6:5