We are in a place where the shadows of death surround us. Two family members are writing the last lines of the final chapter of life. It is certain that death marks the end of each person’s story. No one gets a pass. In that way death is familiar. So I wonder why it seems so foreign and threatening at this moment.
A Bolivian friend, Oscar Uzin, described the process of death as a solitary walk down a long hallway. We arrive at a place where there is a door to be opened. People we have known and loved are waiting for us on the other side just as there may be loved ones gathered around us. But each person is required to take the final steps and pass through the door alone. When we are in the position of waiting beside loved ones, we feel the pain of not being able to help them and to see them pass safely through the doorway to the other side. We are forced to release them long before we are ready to loosen our grip. The sorrow of this final farewell is far more acute than any past separations.
Oscar Uzin was a Dominican priest. His metaphor captures the hope and assurance of the Christian faith. It does not take away the fear and grieving associated with those moments when we let go and commend someone to the arms of God. St. Paul offered another image when he wrote about departing to be with Christ (Philippians 1.23). He used a verb that described a ship leaving harbour. The ropes have been loosened, the sails are set, people on the dock disappear from sight, and the vessel heads for a new destination. There is a purpose to the departure; the ship will arrive at a new place when the journey is over.
I find comfort in these two images as I sit beside my father’s bed and pray for my brother-in-law in Rwanda. I think of walking to the dock and seeing the empty berths from which they have departed. I also reflect on the loneliness of those final steps they must take. I ask God to assure them that he waits beyond the door to embrace them.
St. Paul asked two questions in the form of poetry.
Where, O Death, is your victory?
Where, O Death, is your sting?
He was confident that the weak and perishable body would be raised in glory and power. I think that Paul would understand that at this time we feel that Death has robbed us of precious relationships and we are wounded by the venom of its sting. We share the apostle’s faith in the resurrection of Jesus. We look forward to that time when God wipes every tear from our eyes and we participate in the great banquet with those people we loved and lost.