Sermon 11 ~ Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

ON THE DEATH OF THE JUST

“The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal until the whole was leavened.” MATT. xiii. 33.

IN this days gospel we find that a woman, after putting leaven in the dough, waits till the entire is fermented. Here the Lord gives us to understand that the kingdom of heaven that is, the attainment of eternal beatitude is like the leaven. By the leaven is understood the divine grace, which makes the soul acquire merits for eternal life. But this eternal life is obtained only when”the whole is leavened ;” that is, when the soul has arrived at the end of the present life and the completion of her merits. We shall, then, speak Today of the death of the just, which we should not fear, but should desire with our whole souls. For, says St. Bonaventure, “Triplex in morte congratulatio, hominem ab omni labore, peccato, et periculo liberari.” Man should rejoice at death, for three reasons First, because death delivers him from labour that is, from suffering the miseries of this life and the assault of his enemies. Secondly, because it delivers him from actual sins. Thirdly, because it delivers him from the danger of falling into hell, and opens Paradise to him.

First Point. Death delivers us from the miseries of this life, and from the assaults of our enemies.

  1. What is death? St. Eucherius answers, that “death is the end of miseries.” Job said that our life, however short it may be, is full of miseries, of infirmities, of crosses, of persecutions, and fears. “Man born of a woman, living for a short time, is filled with many miseries.” (Job xiv. 1.) What, says St. Augustine, do men who wish for a prolongation of life on this earth desire but a prolongation of suffering ?” “Quid est diu vivere nisi diu tor queri.” (Serm. xviL de Serb. Dom.) Yes; for, as St. Ambrose remarks, the present life was given to us not for repose or enjoyment, but for labour and suffering, that by toils and pains we may merit Paradise. ”Hæc vita homini non ad quitem data est, sed ad laborem.” (Serm. xliii.) Hence the same holy doctor says, that, though death is the punishment of sin, still the miseries of this life are so great, that death appears to be a relief rather than a chastisement: ”Ut mors remediuni videatur esse, non pœna. ”
  2. To those who love God, the severest of all the crosses of this life are the assaults of hell to rob them of the divine grace. Hence St. Denis the Areopagite says, that they joyfully meet death, as the end of their combats, and embrace it with gladness, because they hope to die a good death, and to be thus freed from all fear of ever again falling into sin. ”Divino gaudio et mortis terminum tanquam ad finem certaminum tendunt, non amplius metuentus pervertii.” (De Hier. Eccl., cap. vii.) The greatest consolation which a soul that loves God experiences at the approach of death, arises from the thought of being delivered from so many temptations, from so many remorses of conscience, and from so many dangers of offending God. Ah! says St. Ambrose, as long as we live, “we walk among snares.” We walk continually in the midst of the snares of our enemies, who lie in wait to deprive us of the life of grace. It was the fear of falling into sin that made St. Peter of Alcantara, in his last moments, say to a lay brother who, in attending the saint, accidently touched him: ”Brother, remove, remove from me, for I am still alive and in danger of being lost.” The thought of being freed from the danger of sin by death consoled St. Teresa, and made her rejoice as often as she heard the clock strike, that an hour of the combat was past. Hence she used to say: ”In each moment of life we may sin and lose God.” Hence the news of approaching death filled the saints not with sorrow or regret, but with sentiments of joy; because they knew that their struggles and the dangers of losing the divine grace were soon to have an end.
  3. ”But the just man, if he be prevented with death, shall be in rest.” (Wis. iv. 7.) He who is prepared to die, regards death as a relief. If, says St. Cyprian, you lived in a house whose roof and walls were tottering and threatening destruction, would you not fly from, it as soon as possible? In this life everything menaces ruin to the poor soul the world, the devils, the flesh, the passions, all draw her to sin and to eternal death. It was this that made St. Paul exclaim: ”Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rom. vii. 24.) Who shall deliver me from this body of mine, which lives continually in a dying state, on account of the assaults of my enemies? Hence he esteemed death as a great gain, because it brought to him the possession of Jesus Christ, his true life. Happy then are they who die in the Lord: because they escape from pains and toils, and go to rest. ”Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord. From henceforth now, saith the spirit, that they may rest from their labours.” (Apoc. xiv. 13.) It is related in the lives of the ancient fathers, that one of them who was very old, when dying, smiled, while the others wept. Being asked why he smiled, he said: “Why do you weep at seeing me go to rest? Ex labore ad requiem vado, et vos ploratis ?” At the hour of death, St. Catherine of Sienna said to her sisters in religion: Rejoice with me: for I leave this land of suffering, and am going to the kingdom of peace. The death of the saints is called a sleep that is, the repose which God gives to his servants as the reward of their toil”When he shall give sleep to his beloved, behold the inheritance of the Lord.” (Ps. cxxvi. 2.) Hence the soul that loves God neither weeps nor is troubled at the approach of death, but, embracing the crucifix, and burning with love, she says: ”In peace in the self same I will sleep and I will rest.” (Ps. iv. 9.)
  4. That “Proficiscere de hoc mundo,” (” Depart, Christian soul, from this world,”) which is so appalling to sinners at the hour of death, does not alarm the saints. ”But the souls of the just are in the hands of God, and the torment of death shall not touch them.” (Wis. iii. 1.) The saint is not afflicted, like worldlings, at the thought of being obliged to leave the goods of this earth, because he has kept the soul detached from them. During life, he always regarded God as the Lord of his heart and as the sole riches which he desired: ”What have I in heaven? and, besides thee, what do I desire upon earth? Thou art the God of my heart and the God that is my portion for ever.” (Ps. Ixxxii. 25, 26.) He is not afflicted at leaving honours, because the only honour which he sought was, to love and to be loved by God. All the honours of this world he has justly esteemed as smoke and vanity. He is not afflicted at leaving his relatives, because he loved them only in God. In his last moments he recommends them to his heavenly Father, who loves them more than he does. And having a secure confidence of salvation, he hopes to be better able to assist his relatives from Paradise, than on this earth. In a word, what he frequently said during life, he continues to repeat with greater fervour at the hour of death”My God and my all.”
  5. Besides, his peace is not disturbed by the pains of death; but, seeing that he is now at the end of his life, and that he has no more time to suffer for God, or to offer him other proofs of love, he accepts those pains with joy, and offers them to God as the last remains of life; and uniting his death with the death of Jesus Christ, he offers it to the Divine Majesty.
  6. And although the remembrance of the sins which he has committed will afflict, it will not disturb him; for, since he is convinced that the Lord will forget the sins of all true penitents, the very sorrow which he feels for his sins, gives him an assurance of pardon. ”If the wicked do penance. … I will not remember all his iniquities that he hath done.” (Ezec. xviii. 21 and 22.) “How,” asks St. Basil, “can anyone be certain that God has pardoned his sins? He may be certain of pardon if he say: I have hated and abhorred iniquity.” (In Reg. inter. 12.) He who detests his sins, and offers to God his death in atonement for them, may rest secure that God has pardoned them. ”Mors,” says St. Augustine, ”quæ in lege naturæ erat poona peccati in lege gratiæ est hostia pro peccato.” (Lib. iv. de Trin. c. xxii.) Death, which was a chastisement of sin under the law of nature, has become, in the law of grace, a victim of penance, by which the pardon of sin is obtained.
  7. The very love which a soul bears to God, assures her of his grace, and delivers her from the fear of being lost. ”Charity casteth out fear.” (1 John iv. 18.) If, at the hour of death, you are unwilling to pardon an enemy, or to restore what is not your own, or if you wish to keep up an improper friendship, then tremble for your eternal salvation; for you have great reason to be afraid of death; but if you seek to avoid sin, and to preserve in your heart a testimony that you love God, be assured that he is with you: and if the Lord is with you, what do you fear? And if you wish to be assured that you have within you the divine love, embrace death with peace, and offer it from your heart to God. He that offers to God his death, makes an act of love the most perfect that is possible for him to perform; because, by cheerfully embracing death to please God, at the time and in the manner which God ordains, he becomes like the martyrs, the entire merit of whose martyrdom consisted in suffering and dying to please God.

Second Point. Death frees us from actual sins.

  1. It is impossible to live in this world without committing at least some slight faults. ”A just man shall fall seven times: ” (Prov. xxiv. 16.) He who ceases to live, ceases to offend God. Hence St. Ambrose called death the burial of vices: by death they are buried, and never appear again. ”Quid est mors nisi sepultura vitorum?” (De Bono Mort. cap. iv.) The venerable Vincent Caraffa consoled himself at the hour of death by saying: now that I cease to live, I cease for ever to offend my God. He who dies in the grace of God, goes into that happy state in which he shall love God for ever, and shall never more offend him. ”Mortuus,” says the same holy doctor, ”nescit peccare. Quid tanto pere vita mistam desideramus, in qua quanto diutius quis fuerit, tanto majori oneratur sarcina peccatorum.” How can we desire this life, in which the longer we live, the greater shall be the load of our sins?
  2. Hence the Lord praises the dead more than any man living: ”I praised the dead rather than the living.” (Eccl. iv. 2.) Because no man on this earth, however holy he may be, is exempt from sins. A spiritual soul gave directions that the person who should bring to her the news of death, should say: ”Console yourself, for the time has arrived when you shall no longer offend God.”
  3. St. Ambrose adds, that God permitted death to enter into the world, that, by dying, men should cease to sin: “Passus est Dominus subintrare mortem ut culpa cessaret.” (Loco cit.) It is, then, a great error to imagine that death is a chastisement for those who love God. It is a mark of the love which God bears to them , because he shortens their life to put an end to sin, from which they cannot be exempt as long as they remain on this earth. ”For his soul pleased God: therefore he hastened to bring him out of the midst of iniquities.” (Wis. iv. 14.)

Third Point. Death delivers us from the danger of falling into hell, and opens Paradise to us.

  1. ”Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of the saints.” (Ps. cxv. 16.) Considered according to the senses, death excites fear and terror; but, viewed with the eye of faith, it is consoling and desirable. To the saints it is as amiable and as precious, as it appears terrible to sinners. ”It is precious,” says St. Bernard, ”as the end of labours, the consummation of victory, the gate of life.” The joy of the cup-bearer of Pharaoh, at hearing from Joseph that he should soon be released from prison, bears no comparison to that which a soul that loves God feels on hearing that she is to be liberated from the exile of this earth, and to be transported to the enjoyment of God in her true country. The Apostle says, that, as long as we remain in the body, we wander at a distance from our country in a strange land, and far removed from the life of God: ”While we are in the body, we are absent from the Lord.” (2 Cor. v. 6.) Hence, St. Bruno teaches, that our death should not be called death, but the beginning of life. ”Mors dicenda non est, sed vitæ principium.” And St. Athanasius says: ”Non est justis mors sed translatio.” To the just, death is but a passage from the miseries of this earth to the eternal delights of Paradise. O desirable death! exclaimed St. Augustine; who is there that does not desire thee? For thou art the term of evils, the end of toils, and the beginning of everlasting repose!”O mors desirabilis, malorum finis, laboris clausula, quietis principium.”
  2. No one can enter into heaven to see God without passing through the gate of death. ”This is the gate of the Lord the just shall enter into it.” (Ps. cxvii. 20.) Hence, addressing death, St. Jerome said: ”Aperi mini soror mea.” Death, my sister, if you do not open the gate to me, I cannot enter to enjoy my God. And St. Charles Borromeo, seeing in his house a picture of death with a knife in the hand, sent for a painter to cancel the knife, and substitute for it a key of gold; because, said the saint, it is death that opens Paradise. Were a queen confined in a dark prison, how great would be her joy at hearing that the gates of the prison are open, and that she is to return from the dungeon to her palace! It was to be liberated by death from the prison of this life that David asked, when he said: ”Bring my soul out of prison.” (Ps. cxli. 8.) This, too, was the favour which the venerable Simeon asked of the infant Jesus, when he held him in his arms: ”Now thou dost dismiss thy servant.” (Luke ii. 29.)”As if detained by force,” says St. Ambrose, ”he asked to be dismissed.” Simeon sought to be delivered by death, as if he had been compelled by force to live on this earth.
  3. St. Cyprian says, that the sinner who shall pass from temporal to eternal death, has just reason to be afraid of death. “Mori timeat, qui ad secundum mortem de hac morte transibit.” But he who is in the state of grace and hopes to pass from death to eternal life which is the true life tears not death. It is related that a certain rich man gave to St. John the Almoner a large sum of money to be dispensed in alms, for the purpose of obtaining from God a long life for his only son. The son died in a short time. The father complained of the death of his son; but, to console him, the Lord sent an angel to say to him: “You have sought a long life for your son, and the Lord has heard your prayer; for your son is in heaven, where he enjoys eternal life.” This is the grace which, according to the promise of the prophet Osee, the Redeemer obtained for us. ”death, I will be thy death.” (xiii. 14.) By His redemption, Jesus Christ destroyed death, and changed it into a source of life to us. When St. Pionius, martyr, was asked how he could go to death with so much joy, he answered: ”You err; I do not go to death but to life.”“Erratis non ad mortem, sed ad vitam contendo.” (Apud Eusub., lib. iv. cap. xiv ) Thus also St. Symphorosa exhorted her son, St. Symphorian, to martyrdom: ”My son,” said she, ”life is not taken away from you; it is only changed for a better one.”
  4. St. Augustine says, that they who love God desire to see him speedily, and that, therefore, to them life is a cause of suffering, and death an occasion of joy. “Patienter vivit, delectabiliter moritur.” (Trac. ix. in Ep. Joan.) St. Teresa used to say, that to her life was death. Hence she composed the celebrated hymn, ”I die because I do not die.” To that great servant of God D. Sancia Carriglio a penitent of Father M. Avila it was one day revealed, that she had but a year to live; she answered: ”Alas! must I remain another year at a distance from God? O sorrowful year, which will appear to me longer than an age.” Such is the language of souls who love God from their heart. It is a mark of little love of God not to desire to see him speedily.
  5. Some of you will say: I desire to go to God, but I fear death. I am afraid of the assaults which I shall then experience from hell. I find that the saints have trembled at the hour of death; how much more ought I to tremble! I answer: It is true that hell does not cease to assail even the saints at death, but it is also true that God does not cease to assist his servants at that moment; and when the dangers are increased, he multiplies his helps. ”Ibi plus auxilii,” says St. Ambrose, ”ubi plus periculi.” (ad Jos. cap. v.) The servant of Eliseus was struck with terror when he saw the city surrounded by enemies; but the saint inspired him with courage by showing to him a multitude of angels sent by God to defend it. Hence the prophet afterwards said: ”Fear not, for there are more with us than with them.” (4 Kings vi. 16.) The powers of hell will assail the dying Christian; but his angel guardian will come to console him. His patrons, and St. Michael, who has been appointed by God to defend his faithful servants in their last combat with the devils, will come to his aid. The mother of God will come to assist those who have been devoted to her. Jesus Christ shall come to defend from the assaults of hell the souls for which he died on a cross: he will give them confidence and strength to resist every attack. Hence, filled with courage, they will say: “The Lord is my light and my salvation: whom shall I fear?” (Isa. xxvi. I.) Truly has Origen said, that the Lord is more desirous of our salvation than the devil is of our perdition, because God’s love for us far surpasses the devil’s hatred of our souls. ”Major ilia cura est, ut nos ad veram pertrahat salutem, quam diabolo, ut nos ad æternam damnationem impellat.” (Hom, xx.)
  6. God is faithful, he will never permit us to be tempted above our strength: ”Fidelis Deus non patietur vos tentari supra id quod potestis.” (1 Cor. x. 13.) It is true that some saints have suffered great fear at the hour of death; but they have been few. The Lord, as Belluacensis says, has permitted this fear to cleanse them at death from some defect. ”Justi quandoque dure moriendo purgantur in hoc mundo.” But we know that, generally speaking, the saints have died with a joyful countenance. Father Joseph Scamacca, a man of a holy life, being asked if, in dying, he felt confidence in God, answered: Have I served Mahomet, that I should now doubt of the goodness of my God, or of his wish to save me? Ah! the Lord knows well how to console his servants in their last moments. Even in the midst of the agony of death, he infuses into their souls a certain sweetness and a certain foretaste of that happiness which he will soon bestow upon them. As they who die in sin begin to experience from the bed of death a certain foretaste of hell certain extraordinary terrors, remorses, and fits of despair; so, on the other hand, the saints, by the fervent acts of divine love which they then make, and by the confidence and the desire which they feel of soon seeing God, taste, before death, that peace which they shall afterwards fully enjoy in heaven.
  7. Father Suarez died with so much peace, that in his last moments he said: ”I could not have imagined that death was so sweet.” Being advised by his physician not to fix his thoughts so constantly on death, Cardinal Baronius said: Is it lest the fear of death should shorten my life? I fear not; on the contrary, I love and desire death. Of the Cardinal Bishop of Rochester, Saunders relates, that, in preparing to die for the faith, he put on his best clothes, saying that ho was going to a nuptial feast. When he came within view of the place of execution, he threw away his staff, and said: O my feet, walk fast; for we are not far from Paradise. ”Ite pedes, parum a paradiso distamus.” Before death, he wished to recite the TE DEUM, in thanksgiving to God for permitting him to die for the holy faith; and, full of joy, he laid his head on the block. St. Francis of Assisium began to sing at the hour of death. Brother Elias said to him: Father, at the hour of death, we ought rather to weep than to sing. But, replied the saint, I cannot abstain from singing at the thought of soon going to enjoy God. A nun of the order of St. Teresa, in her last moments, said to her sisters in religion, who were in tears: O God! why do you weep? I am going to possess my Jesus; if you love me, weep not, but rejoice with me. (Dis. Parol. i. 6.)
  8. Father Granada relates, that a certain sportsman found in a wood a solitary singing in his last agony. How, said the sportsman, can you sing in such a state? The hermit replied: Brother, between me and God there is nothing but the wall of this body. I now see that since my flesh is falling in pieces, the prison shall be destroyed, and I shall soon go to see God. It is for this reason I rejoice and sing. Through the desire of seeing God, St. Ignatius, martyr, said, that if the wild beasts should spare him, he would provoke them to devour him. “Ego vim faciam, ut devorer.” St. Catherine of Genoa was astonished that some persons regarded death as a misfortune, and said: ”O beloved death, in what a mistaken light do men view you! Why do you not come to me? I call on you day and night”(Vita, c. 7.)
  9. Oh! how peculiarly happy is the death of the servants of Mary! Father Binetti relates, that a person whom he assisted in his last moments, and who was devoted to the Blessed Virgin, said to him: ”Father, you cannot conceive the consolation which arises at death from the remembrance of having served Mary. Ah! my father, if you knew what happiness I feel on account of having served this good mother! I cannot express it.” What joy shall the lovers of Jesus Christ experience at his coming to them in the most holy viaticum! Happy the soul that can then address her Saviour in the words which St. Philip Neri used when the viaticum was brought to him: ”Behold my love! behold my love! give me my love!” But, to entertain these sentiments at death, we must have ardently loved Jesus Christ during life.

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