Several years ago, I read a fascinating book by Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland entitled How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter. While some may consider this topic a bit of a "downer" for light reading, I must admit I actually found it quite a pager turner. The inside notes on the book jacket gives one in a few sentences the purpose of this book. It states that "there is a vast literature on death and dying, but there are few reliable accounts of the ways in which we die. The intimate account of how various diseases take away life, offered in How We Die, is not meant to prompt horror or terror but to demythologize the process of dying, to help us rid ourselves of the fear of this 'unknown territory'".
In his work, Dr Sherwin Nuland who himself is a skilled surgeon and teacher of medicine, tells stories of how his own patients have had to struggle with this ultimate reality of human existence. He speaks of those who gracefully accept this experience as an intimate part of the fabric of life as well as those who "fight it all the way". In a thoughtful and provocative way, he states that medical science in many respects is unwilling to see death as part of the life cycle. For physicians, the diagnosis of terminal illness is the ultimate defeat. In some respects, it triggers massive denial not only on the part of family and friends of those who face the reality of death in their life, but also a denial among many physicians themselves for whom death itself remains the ultimate enemy of life.
All of us have undoubtedly been touched by the reality of death in our lives. Perhaps it was the death of a parent, a spouse, a son or daughter or the painful and devastating experience of the death of a child or a close and beloved friend. In each of these moments we taste the bitterness of human anguish, the emotional pain of being separated from those whom we have come to know and love in our lives. There are no easy answers or glib phrases that can soften and shorten the grieving process. It may sound terribly simplistic, but I often hear myself telling those in the midst of such grief that it will "just take time" and to be patient with oneself for the healing of the heart in the face of the grief of death cannot be rushed.
God's word to us this day, however, sheds the light and freedom of the Gospel on the darkness of death and its frightening hold on us. Jesus uses a natural image of a grain of wheat falling to the earth and appearing to die in order to capture the attention of his audience - in order to give hope to all those who must struggle with the mystery of death and dying in this world. In order for that grain of wheat to ultimately become what God intended it to be, it must go through the passage of death. It must give up one form of existence in order to be transformed into new life. Jesus, of course, was speaking of what he himself was to face in his own passage through death to new life in resurrection. He realizes that it was for this passage to glorification that he came. Like the Romans who spoke of carpe diem - "seizing the day" - Jesus takes hold of this critical moment in his life - this hour - in order that the great covenant relationship of his father with all of humanity might come to perfect completion.
And so, for the Christian, our completion or fulfillment in life can only come about through our own passage with the Lord through the gates of death. That is the paradox of the cross for every Christian. From the first moment of our Christian journey in baptism to the eventual unfolding of life in death, we are signed with the cross. For the man or woman of faith, it no longer is an instrument of cruel torture but rather becomes the sign of our ultimate glory and transformation because of the one who hung upon it.
As we come to know the cross of Christ in our lives in the daily frustrations and anxieties that are a part of the human condition or in the fear we might carry in the face of our own mortality, let us be filled with hope because of the cross of Christ. Let us come to realize that the critical question in life is not so much "How we Die" but rather "Why we Die" and its ultimate answer in Christ our Risen Savior.