The twenty-ninth day of Lent

Monday after 5 Lent

Lent begins with a reflection on our mortality: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." And it culminates in the death on the Cross of the Son of God. In order to be fully human, it was necessary for Jesus to die. Death comes to us in many different ways. In the Great Litany, we pray to be delivered from "dying suddenly and unprepared," and one of the great burial anthems of the Prayer Book prays: "Suffer us not at our last hour for any pains of death to fall from Thee." [Here is a recording of Henry Purcell's moving setting of that text.] Death means separation. It is certainly separation from those whom we love in this life. The fear of dying suddenly and unprepared is the fear of separation from God after death. Saint Paul assures us that even death cannot separate us from the love of God, yet Jesus himself endured a moment of anxiety when he prayed from the Cross, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

As we contemplate the death of Jesus, we are very much aware that he did not die alone. Even as he faced the separation that death brings, he was supported by those who loved him: his mother Mary, the beloved disciple John, the other women who had been a part of the company that followed him from Galilee to Jerusalem. Most of his disciples had fled in fear for their own lives, but this group of faithful family and friends would not allow him to die alone, even though staying was agonizing, as well as dangerous.

For some people, dying itself is a fearful thing. But it is far, far worse if death must be faced alone. To die alone is to be confronted with our deeper fear that we will also be alone after death. And so it is that one of the greatest acts of charity that we can perform is to stay by the side of those who are dying--to comfort them, to minister to their physical needs in their last hours, to pray with them, simply to be with them so that they are not alone. Those who are nearest to the dying also need the support of friends in this time, for they, too, are facing a heart-wrenching separation.

It is both important and natural for us to be with those whom we love--family and friends--when death is approaching. This is something we need to be prepared to do at any time, for fatal illness and death can come at any time. It is also an act of great charity and compassion to serve those whom we have not previously known, particularly those who are alone. They can be found in nursing homes and homes for the elderly or disabled, in hospice and in hospital. Today is a good day to explore the opportunities in your community to serve the dying. Pastoral care departments can provide training as well as guidance for appropriate ways to get involved. 

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