The past few days have been filled with death. Halloween, in which many people dress as the living dead or as figures from the past, followed by All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, which, by definition, are dedicated to commemorating the lives of those Christians who have gone before us. People sending pipe bombs to former President Obama, the Clinton’s, and George Soros, along with recent racially-motivated terrorist attacks, further remind us of the reality of death, and add another dynamic to it: no one expects death or near-death experiences. Even people who are on their deathbed, the exact moment of their death remains unknown.
Eleven people in Pittsburgh and 2 in Kentucky have already stood before the judgment seat of God, and have met their eternal fate. We must pray for them. But, as we pray for them, let us meditate on the Catholic view of death.
A professor of mine once said that one of the worst things to affect the modern world was the fact that we have forgotten how to speak about death. Talk of death has been reduced to a small handful of worn-out platitudes meant to make people feel good, but which provide no in-depth insights about death. He lamented how the traditional vocabulary and philosophy of death has been, with very few exceptions, discarded, thus leaving us without a sufficient frame of reference within which to deal with the reality of death. We can overcome the immediate emotional trauma of experiencing the death of a loved one, but most people lack the ability to cope with death on a fundamental, existential level. It is for this reason that most people act as if it is not an inevitability that they, and everyone around them, will one day stand before God and have to give an account for heir life.
The reality of death stems from one basic spiritual truth: man was created out of nothing, but he was not created for nothing. Man was created by God in order to share in His infinite goodness. Death represents a corruption in our being, a return to nothingness. We see this in a traditional Byzantine hymn known as the Evlogitaria for the Dead. An “evlogitaria” is a specific type of hymn, and this particular evlogitaria is often recited at funerals and prayer services dedicated to a person who has died. In one section, it says,
You Who did fashion me of old out of nothingness, and with Your Image Divine did honor me. But because of transgressions of Your commandments, did return me again to the earth, from which I was taken. Lead me back to be refashioned into that ancient beauty of Your Likeness.
What this presupposes is a mindset common in Eastern Christian thought. St. Athanasius of Alexandria (A.D. 296-373) summarizes this concept best in his work On the Incarnation. He states, in Chapter 5 of this text, that humans, prior to the Fall, were finite beings, but lived in a state of grace. Humans were thus capable of death, but did not actually die. Death came about when mankind chose to sin.  By choosing to sin, we turn away from God. Since God is the source of all being and existence, to turn away from God is to turn away from the source of all being and existence, and thus to turn towards nothingness. God created us in His Image; yet, His Image and Likeness within us became corrupted by sin. Death is thus a manifestation of the corruption that comes through sin. God thus had to become man in the person of Jesus. By becoming man, He sanctified broken human nature, and by dying and rising He conquered death (the immediate fruit of the defeat of death is eternal life in heaven; the final fruit is the restoration of the body and the reuniting of the body and the soul in the End Times). God restored His image within us. Redemption, for Athanasius, is thus a renewal or recreation of human nature. In Chapter 14 of On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius compares God’s redemptive act to the restoration of an image: when an image becomes dirty or damaged, we ask the model of the image to return to us (or we go out to them) so that we can restore the image. Likewise, sin and death are the result of the Image of God within us being warped; but, He in Whose Image we were created appeared to us, restoring the image He had created in us. 
Yet, there are two parts to salvation: what God does, and our response to God. God, in His redemptive act, offered us the means by which to attain salvation; we, for our part, to reap the fruits of God’s salvific act, must accept and cooperate with what God did and continues to do. Thus, the Evlogitaria for the Dead continues,
The choir of the saints has found the fountain of light and the door of paradise. May I also find the way through repentance, I am the sheep that was lost, call me up to You O Savior and save me.
Heaven here is referred to as Paradise. This should invoke images of the Garden of Eden. And this is intentional. What defined man’s state in the Garden of Eden, prior to the Fall? What defined earthly paradise was intimacy with God. It is for this reason that the phrase “the fountain of light” is also used: God is the source of all truth and goodness, which in Christian literature is frequently referred to as “light.”
The English term “saint” comes from the Latin term meaning “holy one.” You see similar implications in other languages (in Greek, the term ‘O agios, meaning “the holy,” is added before the names of saints). Holiness is defined by seeing God as the source of goodness and truth. This is the door to paradise, the path to salvation. We are confirmed in our holiness in heaven, whereby we directly perceive God (as much as the human mind is capable of perceiving it), and are united to this source of light as we were in the paradise we lost by sin.
We, too, become holy by repentance, that is, by turning from our sin. The act of repentance shows the reality of both free will and utter dependence on God. Humans have free will, and thus conversion requires us to use our free will properly, by choosing to reject sin and turn towards God. Yet, our free will has been so warped by sin that it is impossible for our free will to fully overcome sin without the assistance of God’s grace. Repentance or conversion is thus seen as a free act of the will (as is implied by how any Biblical text that deals with God’s judgment clearly implies that God is holding us responsible for our actions) and as God calling us or drawing us to Himself (John 6:44, Ephesians 1:4).
Immediately after death, we are judged by God. The thought of God’s judgment should thus instill within us a fear beyond all other fear. I don’t think it is inappropriate to describe our personal judgment with the words used by ancient writers to describe the Final Judgment of all mankind: in the traditional Gregorian chant Dies Irae, sung at funeral masses and on the liturgy associated with All Souls’ Day, the day of judgment is described in the original Latin as “Dies irae, dies illa” – “That Day of Wrath, that dreadful day.” Yet, the same chant goes on to say,
O what shall I, so guilty plead, and who for me will intercede, when even saints shall comfort need? O King of dreadful majesty, grace and mercy You grant free; as Font of Kindness, save me! Recall, dear Jesus, for my sake You did our suffering nature take then do not now my soul foresake! In weariness You sought for me, and suffering on the tree: let not in vain such labor be.
As we stand before God, or even contemplate God’s goodness in this life, the contrast between God’s infinite goodness and our lowliness is emphasized. This reality creates a sense of dread even within the holiest of men and women. Yet, we can stand with confidence before the Judgment Seat of God because, as we strive for salvation, we have an Advocate, Christ Jesus. By suffering on the Cross, Jesus seeks us, as the hymn says, and draws us to God. This is the source of our confidence. The only possible obstacle is not on God’s part, but on our part: are we receptive to what the Father does through the Son to recreate us, and thereby draw us back to Himself?
Thus, after death, we will stand before the infinite goodness and majesty of God. This goodness and majesty encompasses both justice on the one hand, and mercy on the other. Thus, the thought of death and judgment should instill within us both fear and hope. What will make our good works meritorious of salvation is this, “Were they born out of charity?” The specific form of love we call charity – a love in which we emulate the love of God, especially as manifested in Christ – as opposed to natural love (the love that all people are capable of) is born out of the grace of God dwelling in us. Since merits are born out of charity and charity is born out of grace, what will determine whether we are saved is, “In this life, were we receptive to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, whereby we receive that by which we are drawn to and united to Christ, and through that drawn to and united to the Father?” In other words, did we accept the grace God – whereby our sins are forgiven, we are made righteous, and the soul is united to God – and did we cooperate with and remain in that grace by bearing its fruit?
If the answer is yes, then we will end up in heaven. Death becomes for us, as another Gregorian funeral chant puts it, a requiem aeternam, an eternal rest, granted to us by the mercy and grace of God. It is for this reason that one of the most important funeral hymns sung during the Catholic mass makes use of a relatively joyous verse: it quotes from Psalm 65:2, “To You we owe a hymn of praise, Oh God in Zion…” It also includes the verse, “…all flesh shall come to Thee,” which is loosely based on a verse from 4 Esdras 2:34 and 35 (4 Esdras being a book in the Bible that was popular among Ancient Jews and early Christians, but was ultimately rejected as being non-canonical in the Western Church, and of quasi-canonical status in the East): “Therefore I say to you, O nations that hear and understand, Await your shepherd, He will give you everlasting life…Be ready for the rewards of the Kingdom, because the eternal light will shine upon you forevermore.” Death, in the Christian tradition, because of God’s redemptive plan, does not have a merely sorrowful dynamic, but also a joyful and hope-filled dynamic: there is the possibility that for any person who died, this death is a transition from the finite, temporal life of earth to the eternal life of salvation, whereby man attains his proper end (union with God). We rejoice in God for providing us with the possibility of salvation, and take the commemoration of death as an opportunity to call us to moral vigilance, to prepare ourselves for when we finally stand before the judgment seat of God. It is a reminder that we will be where this person is, and thus, like this person, we must also be receptive to God’s grace and watchful against anything that leads us away from grace, if we are to have the possibility of salvation.
Hope, sorrow and moral vigilance thus all come together in a dynamic fashion in any authentically Christian view of death. Death is something to be sad about, but, due to God’s salvific plan, becomes for those who die in His grace the means of eternal rest. It is a rest that results from a life of moral vigilance, a lifelong struggle with sin that we emerge victorious from if we dwell in Christ and Christ in us.
- St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, trans. John Berh (Yonkers: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), pg. 54-55
- ibid., pg. 63