13th Sunday of Ordinary Time
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 a strange ambiguity about it, and not just for a great saint like Francis but for any Christian whose faith is sound. Living faith enables Christians to think of death in terms that the world at large can’t begin to understand. Now we Christians certainly understand the death of the body to be an evil in itself, for, as the Book of Wisdom assures us, “God did not make death.” Death is an evil.
Thus, God’s revealed Word teaches us that death “by the envy of the devil entered the world,” which our faith understands to mean that death entered the world only as the result of Original Sin, not as part of God’s original plan of creation.
On the other hand, for believing Christians death is not pure and simply an evil, but rather an evil which has been transformed by Jesus Christ into a positive good for the Christian, a true good in the supernatural order of things. This is surely what St. Francis is expressing when he refers to death as “Sister Death.” Thus Francis was not some kind of romantic fatalist who simply accepted death as part of life, but rather he was a profoundly believing Christian who accepted death as redemptive of life.
Now a non-Christian, a good pagan or even a pure secularist, 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 in reality, something that has the character of a good; it would be only be seen and accepted as the lesser of two evils. But for St. Francis, death was more than that, it was certainly an evil on the natural level, but on the higher, supernatural level of man’s existence it becomes, by virtue of Christ, something to be embraced when it’s time has come, a share in the Cross positively welcomed, whatever the circumstances of life, and that is what Francis surely meant when he addressed death, as “Sister Death.” It was but his expression of the Christian faith that shaped his outlook on everything, including death itself, the same faith that should shape our attitudes towards both life and death.
Our first reading today from Wisdom clearly affirms that death is an evil in the order of creation, introduced not by the Creator, but by the rebellion of creatures made in the image of the Creator. God is all life, goodness with no mixture of anything that is evil, anything even remotely related to what we know as death. Man was created to be imperishable precisely because man was created as God’s true image, and God is utterly imperishable. So the gift of life was totally good and intentionally or conditionally imperishable in God’s act of creation. Man was created not for death but precisely to give glory to God as the living image of God in creation.
St. Paul confirms this truth of revelation regarding the origin of death in man in his Letter to the Romans. In 5:12, Paul says that when Adam sinned, sin entered the world and that Adam’s sin brought death; so death spread to everyone. The Church has ever taught this great truth, that death was not in God’s plan of creation except as a consequence and punishment for sin, for Adam’s sin which affected the whole human race.
The tragedy of man is this, that when man sinned, in Adam, death was inserted into God’s good creation. Death as such always remains an evil on the level of nature itself, a reality that man naturally and quite rightly abhors because man is a creature who was made for life, for an unending life, and he knows this in the depth of his being.
But for the Christian, even death itself has now been transformed by the saving mission of Jesus Christ who is Himself the Lord of Life. We firmly believe, as Christians, that death itself has been conquered and transformed by the Lord of Life. In so 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 and asked if possible to be spared this calamity as He prepared himself for the Cross on which He would die for our sins. As the new Adam, Christ hated death more than any man, for He did not bear the weight of our sins, which merit death, without He Himself despising death as evil for both Himself and us. He was pure innocence, pure life as God had created the first Adam; death had no claim on him.
How great is the Christian doctrine of redemption which involves a total transformation of man, bringing good out of the very evil caused by man’s Original Sin, the punishment of death. This punishment, this evil consequence of human sin is, by Christ’s passion and death, made to yield to life; indeed this totally unjust death of the absolutely innocent new Adam becomes the very means, the instrument, by which Christ restores 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 profound 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 sacrificial death conquered all forms of death, the death of the soul, and the death of the body and produced unending life, which is the opposite of death. So His death on the level of nature, produced an effect that is not only the opposite of death, life, but it did so on the level of the supernatural. For His death and resurrection did not cause a natural life to be restored, but merited and caused the very Life of Grace, an infinitely higher order of life, God’s Life, to become the life possible for both body and soul.
Indeed, this mystery of death producing life does not end with the death and resurrection of Jesus. Christians obviously 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 more wonderfully a transformation into something even greater, a passage into the Life that never ends It was this Life that was given to us as a seed in our Baptism, which will only come to its full blossoming as the result of our death, which is now 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 the fullness of Life Eternal, and so he welcomed the means for this passage by referring to it as his sister, “welcome Sister Death.”
How sad that unbelievers only abhor death and can find nothing really good to see in this reality. As we see so often in our day, at best the godless will 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.
Sadly, 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 possess a supernatural vision of faith regarding life and death. The half-Christian does not think of his or her true life as the Life received in Baptism, the Life that cannot be destroyed by death, the Life that is finally entered into fully by the passage of death.
Such half believers do not think of death as “Sister Death” because they rarely think of Christ as “Brother Life.” St. Francis thought of little else during his lifetime, and the man or woman who shares the same faith is more like Francis than any contemporaries who believe little or nothing of this mystery. The fully believing Christian alone can sing 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 victory chant will also be our faith filled response to death, and when at last God chooses to call us to share in His eternal, imperishable and fully beatifying Life we will say with Francis: “Welcome Sister Death!”