‘Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;’
The first two lines of the poem by John Donne; a 17th century English poet and cleric in the Church of England demonstrates unmistakably the contempt the persona has for Death here personified with the use of personal pronouns. It is an open confrontation that gets personal in the fourth line: ‘nor yet canst thou kill me.’ Yes, make no mistake, Death, you cannot kill me. In other words, Death has no power over me anymore. Donne believes in the same belief that all Christians share, and that is Death has long lost its bargaining chips when Christ was resurrected three days after his death. And indeed, our Mother Church teaches us that we who unite our own death to that of Jesus can ‘view it as a step towards him and an entrance into everlasting life.’ (CCC1020)
One reason why Death wields such great power over many is because it is one of the last frontiers that are still inaccessible to Man despite the advance in Science and Technology. Man, who has been able to use Science to theorize even the Universe, has no tool with which he could use to whip Death into submission. And of course, Death is the ultimate equalizer taking anyone and everyone – from kings to beggars. Absolutely, no amount of wealth and power can induce Death to make an exception.
Once again, the Catholic Church assures us that Death does not have the last word, for while our physical body may die, the human soul does not. It is immortal ‘and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection’. (CCC 366) For those who have yet to have a personal encounter with Death, particularly death in the family, it remains a distant concept. My personal encounters with Death have always left me feeling a little awkward. One of the first deaths that occurred closest to home was the death of an aunt who succumbed to throat cancer. I was in primary school then. As the funeral was held in Malaysia and it being school term, I did not get to attend it, but I remember vividly the amount of grief that my mother demonstrated for her younger sister’s passing. Frankly, I was taken aback as I was too young then to understand fully what death was all about and its impact. As I grew older, more deaths occurred as I lost more elderly relatives including my maternal grandparents (also in Malaysia), it gave me a little more insight into Death and its power over the living. But I never got out of feeling awkward, for I did not really know how to react when relatives wailed aloud at the wakes. I thought I must be quite insensitive for instead of feeling sorry, most of the time I just felt awkward. By the time I lost my father and mother 13 years and 7 years ago respectively, Death began to make more sense because these are people closest to me. The awkwardness was replaced by genuine grief for loss of loved ones. Ironically, these experiences have helped me to empathize better with others who have also lost their loved ones in my pastoral work.
Whenever family members express grief at the death of a loved one, it always brings me back to my own experiences with my parents. And instead of offering words of comfort, I find that a quiet presence is more apt in such circumstances as you are allowing grief to take its course and giving space for the living the grieve. I take heart that Jesus who would triumph over Death was greatly moved by Mary’s tears for her dead brother, Lazarus (John 11:1-44) and issued ‘a sigh that came straight from the heart’ as well as shed tears for his friend. This episode epitomizes for me the very humanity of Jesus and at the same time, the mercy of God. And bearing in mind that this episode precedes what Jesus would be going through two chapters later (Chapter 13), his passion, death and resurrection, we cannot help but notice its significance in Saint John, the evangelist’s mind.
I once thought that I was invincible to death as well, that is until I had to have a surgery in 2015 for a ruptured appendix. While the rational side of me understood that the surgery was low risk, I was still seized by a momentary fear. While I was lying on the trolley outside the operating theatre – waiting to be pushed in – I started feeling petrified. But the cause of my fear was not really of the unknown aspect of Death but the fear that I would die without leaving a trace on Life. This great unease prompted me to pray the Rosary seeking Blessed Virgin Mary’s intercession. I guess it was a brief moment of existential crisis, brought on by the idea of a possible death.
This being the month of March, I was reminded of the Feast of Saint Joseph on 19th March. Saint Joseph was the husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the foster father of Jesus. I have always imagined what it’s like for him to die in the arms of Mary and Jesus. Does it mean Saint Joseph did not experience the fear that many of us face when confronted with Death? It truly leaves me wondering. Perhaps, the following scenario described in the last two lines of the poem took place:
‘One short sleep past, we wake eternally And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.’
Donne was echoing the line in 1 Corinthians 15: 26: “The last of the enemies to be destroyed is death…” Saint Joseph knowing full well that Jesus Christ would conquer Death had nothing to fear anymore. We, too, have nothing to fear. Death has no power anymore. Thanks be to God!