What Should We Think About The End of Life?
Over the course of my ministry, I have walked with many people and their family members as they neared the end of life. What has become clear to me is the distinct difference between those who have faith in Jesus Christ and those who do not. This becomes a very important distinction as we move toward the end of our lives. What are the ways in which we, as faithful Christians, are called to approach our death as faithfully as we have lived our lives?
Statisticians have crunched the numbers and the results are clear. There is a 100% chance that we will die. Death is inevitable. However, many in our culture would have us believe otherwise. When illness strikes, we are encouraged, and in many cases expected, to reach for new medical technologies that will extend our lives well beyond the number of years our grandparents expected to live. Machines that breathe for us, modern pharmacological breakthroughs, organ transplants, and other life-extending measures help us to nurture a belief that we can avoid death at all costs.
As Christians, however, we know at a deeper level that the way in which our culture views death is flawed. We know that life does not end when we take our last breath. Death is only a single event, and does not have the last word. As we read in 1 Corinthians 15, verses 54 and 55, “’Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’”
Our faith is founded upon the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has won for us the ultimate victory over death. God does not abandon us at death. On the contrary, God raises us to new life. As Paul says, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39) When we internalize the truth found in Paul’s words, we can see our struggle is not to avoid death at all costs, but to approach our final days with the same degree of faith and trust in God as we hold in life.
Knowing that God does not abandon us can set us free from the fear and anxiety we might naturally feel surrounding our own deaths, or the deaths of those we love. Even though we will encounter difficult decisions, our faith can provide a critical support structure as we make those decisions. Modern medicine has advanced health care at a rapid pace, and we need to be prepared to answer questions regarding our medical care from a position of faith, not fear. It is important to remember that the best time to consider these questions is not when we are faced with an immediate health crisis, where emotions tend to run high, but in moments of calm and clarity before our health becomes a cause for concern.
To that end, we look to what we have learned through our faith in God. There are three theological concepts that can help us as we consider what we believe about the end of life. First, our faith is theocentric. We believe that God is one, the Alpha and the Omega, the “source of light and life.” As William Temple writes, “Faith in God is faith in an ever-present, all-sustaining Power.” If we believe that to be true, we recognize that God is the power and purpose behind all of God’s creation, of which we are a part. We honor God through our lives, and give thanks and praise for the goodness of God. One way in which we express our thanks and praise is to understand that we are a part of that creation, and a reflection of God’s goodness. To be welcomed into the arms of God beyond this life should bring us tremendous joy, not fill us with fear or dread.
Second, our faith is incarnational. Our theology of the incarnation is most fully revealed in Jesus Christ. Because we are sinful creatures, our relationship with God is broken. Jesus Christ came to restore that relationship and bring us back into communion with God. The restoration for Anglicans takes place in and through the Word and sacrament, as they draw us into the life of God as it is revealed in Jesus Christ. In his life and in his death, Jesus is one with God, and is raised into God. So, too, through the love of God and the love of neighbor, we are drawn out of ourselves and into the glory of God. We are participants in God’s design for all people, and are raised into new life in Christ. The presence of God becomes clearer through our lives, and even in our death.
Third, our faith is corporate. We live out our faith in community as it was intended from the earliest days of the church. In Eucharistic Prayer B, we pray that “in the fullness of time, [God would] put all things in subjection under your Christ, and bring us to that heavenly country where, with all your saints, we may enter the everlasting heritage of your sons and daughters.” We are part of that everlasting heritage in the communion of saints: past, present, and future. We are made one body in Christ, and that body will support us in all phases of our life, even and especially at the end, as we move into that heavenly kingdom.
Because we need not fear the end of life, we are set free to appreciate the life we have now. James, chapter 4, verses 14 and 15, says, “You do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.’” The Lord wishes you to live your life to the fullest, all to His honor and glory. Let your life be a witness to others that they, too, might be set free from their fears as they follow Jesus Christ. Spend less of your time and energy worrying about what tomorrow will bring, and more time praising the One who holds you in the palm of His hand.
As we draw closer to God, especially as we near the end of our life, we are given an opportunity to see the ways in which our sinful behavior has separated us from God. We can use what time we have left in this life to do all we can to repent of our sinful behaviors and return to the God who loves us. The petitions contained at the beginning of The Great Litany are a great way to open our hearts and minds to the ways in which we might have offended our Lord in thought, word or deed. Not only do we have the opportunity to be set free from our fears about death, but we also have an opportunity to be restored to full relationship with Christ.
The note included in the rubrics for Burial says that the “liturgy for the dead is an Easter liturgy. It finds all its meaning in the resurrection. Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we, too, shall be raised. The liturgy, therefore, is characterized by joy.” While we begin and end our thoughts regarding the end of our lives with the resurrection of Christ, it is also important to recognize the grief we might feel. The note goes on to say, “This joy, however, does not make human grief unchristian. The very love we have for each other in Christ brings deep sorrow when we are parted by death.” Anyone faced with a difficult diagnosis, or the loss of a loved one, will grieve. It is a natural and appropriate response. This is where the community of faith has an opportunity to surround those who grieve with love and care. This is the love of Christ incarnate in the hands and hearts of our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is this love that will sustain us through the most difficult times. Eventually, we will move through our grief towards acceptance: acceptance of our mortality, acceptance of human limitations, acceptance of the care that surrounds us on every side, and acceptance of Christ’s victory over death on our behalf. As Jeremy Taylor once wrote in his work entitled The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying, “It is a great art to die well.” We have the opportunity as Christians to witness to the power of Jesus Christ not only in our lives, but also in our death, as others see us end our life in faith and not fear.
On a practical note, this art of holy dying is made easier for us by appropriate preparation and decision making prior to a health crisis. First, plan your funeral with your clergy. Leave a copy of the funeral planning documents with the church so they will know your wishes. Second, create an advanced directive to help your loved ones know your wishes as it pertains to any major health decisions your loved ones might face in the event you are unable to speak for yourself. Third, consult your attorney and establish a power of attorney, and draw up a will, so there will be no outstanding legal questions. When you have these documents in hand, call a meeting of your family to discuss your decisions, and keep these documents in a safe place where your next-of-kin knows where to find them. To prepare these documents in advance does not mean that you are choosing to hasten your death. They are one way in which you can ensure that the end of your days will be lived out in faith: a faith that has power to transform not only your life, but the lives of those you love.
 The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 377.
 Temple, William. Christian Faith and Life. Edited by Susan Howatch. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1994, p. 11.
 The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 369.
 The Book of Common Prayer (1979), pp. 148-9.
 The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 507.
 Taylor, Jeremy. Selected Works. The Classics of Western Spirituality. Edited by Thomas K. Carroll. New York: Paulist Press, 1990 p. 466.
Catherine Thompson is Rector at Church of the Annunciation in Lewisville