In past centuries Christians generally avoided speaking publicly about sex. They hushed it up. The fact that we are here today is powerful evidence that this taboo did not mean that Christians avoided doing things in private that they blushed to mention in public. Sex was hushed up because Christians believed that speaking too much and too freely about it led to immorality, out-of-wedlock births and disease. And it has.
What did Christians in past centuries talk about if they weren’t talking about this most popular of contemporary subjects?
Rather than obsessing about sex like so many of us do today, Christians centuries ago spoke freely and constantly about a subject that we today try to avoid at all costs in our age, death.
We try to convince ourselves that if we try hard enough and science advances quickly enough, we can cheat death. News reports are constantly talking about new drugs and treatments that will be able to extend our lifespan indefinitely. We have government health care to insure that no one who gets a life-threatening disease will be without the benefits of modern medicine. Dr. Oz tells us about diets and exercise regimens that will help us avoid illness, feel younger and live longer. The possibility of harvesting embryonic stems cells is seen by some as a potential fountain of youth.
But none of this has changed, nor will it ever change, the fact that with each passing day every one of us is a day closer to death.
My mother, whose parents came from centuries of generations of Polish peasants whose Catholicism was in their bones, sometimes shares some of the traditions that colored her childhood surrounding death. Every November there were visits to cemeteries and prayers at the graves of family members. The somber black and sorrowful chants of the funeral Masses brought with them copious tears and feelings of grief. The living actively engaged death by praying for their deceased loved ones and having Masses celebrated for the repose of their souls.
My mother’s family, despite having a low level of education, knew something that many today have forgotten. Death, the thing we fear so much , does not ultimately come from a lack of medical care or an unhealthy lifestyle. It comes from sin. And as much as my mother’s extended family loved those family members who had died, they knew, perhaps too well, that those deceased had committed their share of sins. That was why it was so important to call the priest so that the dying family members could make one last confession, take viaticum and receive extreme unction before going reaching the fearsome judgment seat of God. Even having receiving the last rites, a lifetime of sinful affections often still remained that would have to be purged in order for their souls to be ready to enter into the glorious presence of God. After death the only thing that could lessen the pains of purgatory were the prayers of the living, most especially Mass intentions offered for the deceased.
Many today would find these traditions that nourished our ancestors in the faith strange and perhaps a bit morbid.
What does all of this have today with Good Friday, when we commemorate the Passion of Jesus Christ?
The word passion originally refers to suffering. Strong desires, like desires for food, sex and revenge, come upon us sometimes with such a force that any attempt to resist them involves great suffering. From this experience we come to speak of passion in the vulgar sense, which usually means surrendering to lust rather than battling against it.
Christ’s Passion reveals the fullest sense of suffering –something much greater than standing firm against temptation.
Jesus is a Divine person. This fact means that, unlike us, He did not have to die. He could have lived forever. Yet, in His Passion Christ chooses to embrace death freely. He lets happen to Himself something that never had to happen. He does this to set us free from slavery to Satan.
The devil won a claim over the human race through the disobedience of our first parents. Until the death of Christ, the devil was unbound. He was entirely free to use the fear of death as a weapon against us to lead us into sin. Even a cursory review of human history shows that over the centuries the devil had become quite practiced at enslaving the human race through the fear of death. The widespread practice of fertility rites, cultic prostitution and human sacrifice in the pagan world revolved around an attempt to control life at its beginning and end in order to attain a mystical mastery over death. In our post-Christian country we have managed to reintroduce elements of these practices in what Saint John Paul II called “The Culture of Death.”
But when Satan invoked his rights over the man Jesus on Good Friday, he discovered that he had none. And this false claim voided the rights that he had previously over the human race. By submitting to death for our sake, Christ conquered death and robbed the devil of his most potent weapon.
Ever since then people who commit themselves to following Christ have had no reason to fear death. Saint Paul gave us a good example of such fearlessness when he said “to me life is Christ and death is gain” (Ph. 1:21). His martyrdom, as well as the martyrdom of most of the rest of the Apostles and thousands of other early Christians, are even more forceful witnesses to the power of the Cross to drive away fear of death in the first centuries of the Catholic Church.
Another example of Christian fearlessness in the face of death comes from an Egyptian boy at the beginning of the third century named Origen. A violent pogrom against Christians broke out in Origen’s city, during which his father won a martyr’s crown. Origen wanted to go out to die with his father so much that the only way that his mother could prevent him was by hiding his clothes.
My brothers and sisters, what would we do if we knew that leaving our homes would mean dying a martyr’s death?
Would we be afraid of dying?
Are we afraid of what would happen if we stopped up filling our Sundays with activities for our children that cause us to miss Mass on occasion and certainly make it impossible for us to keep the Lord’s Day holy nearly every Sunday?
Are we afraid of what would happen if we were willing to suffer for the sake of our faith when our beliefs mean that we have to swim against the current?
Are we afraid of what would happen if we stopped robbing God (Mal. 3:6-12) and starting tithing as an act of worship to the One who has given us everything we have?
We have become used to having most of the pleasures we want when we want them, literally right at our fingertips with the internet. The idea that suffering, much less death, freely embraced for the sake of love is the true meaning of life seems just plain morbid to many. But death and suffering are unavoidable facts of life. Exhausting ourselves by trying to avoid them only feeds our fear and leads us deeper and deeper into self-bondage.
The good news for us today is that Jesus Christ defeated sin and death on the Cross. We have nothing to fear. Nothing. Not our kids failing to get into a good college, not being unpopular, not poverty, not even death.
Our ancestors in the faith knew this truth. They were able to speak about death in ways that we find very uncomfortable today because they saw it in a larger context, the context of Christ’s Passion and death on the Cross.
In a few moments, we will have an opportunity to come forward and kiss an image of Christ crucified. As we come forward to do so we have the opportunity to lay down our fears, especially our fear of death, at the foot of the Cross and ask Jesus to take them up into the victory He won for us on the first Good Friday