The Rev’d N.J.A. Humphrey
“Preparing for Death”
Year B, 1 Advent (RCL)
The Zabriskie Memorial Church
3 December 2017
“[K]eep awake–for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn…”
It’s Advent again, and this familiar admonition is, of course, meant to be applied to the second coming of Christ. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really tell you what it means to “keep awake.” So rather than offering a somewhat abstract meditation this morning on the importance of “staying awake,” of “being intentional,” or of “slowing down” in Advent, I’d like to bring things down to earth a bit. Or more specifically, under the earth–six feet under, if you get my drift. Traditionally, the four Sundays of Advent are dedicated to the “Four Last Things:” Death. Judgment. Heaven. Hell. This being the First Sunday of Advent, “Death” is the order of the day. (Just to be clear, I’m not mandating the other three Advent preachers to follow this pattern, but if Deacon Close wants to preach on “Judgment” next week, Mother Shoemaker on “Heaven,” the week after that, and Father Yost on “Hell,” I won’t object.)
But as for me, my objective this morning is to begin at the end. That is to say, one of the best ways to prepare for the coming of Christ is to prepare for the coming of our death. Specifically, we can prepare for death in at least three ways: material preparation, spiritual preparation, and relational preparation.
Material preparation is in some ways the easiest, if we take the time and care to do it right. A few decades ago, the following canonical directive was given to clergy: “The Minister of the Congregation is directed to instruct the people, from time to time, about the duty of Christian parents to make prudent provision for the well-being of their families, and of all persons, to make wills, while they are in health, arranging for the disposal of their temporal goods, not neglecting, if they are able, to make bequests for religious and charitable uses.” (This is of course a less than oblique way of reminding you that we would appreciate it if you would remember St. John’s—and/or the Choir School—in your will.)
In short, material preparation is concerned with how we want our bodies to be treated on our final journey and in their final disposition, as well as what we want done with everything we have accumulated. Material preparation means taking care of the legal aspects of death: Last Will & Testament, Power of Attorney, Do Not Resuscitate orders, Advance Directives. And then there are the funeral-related matters: Cremation or Casket? Columbarium or Urn? Cemetery or Churchyard? Paper or Plastic? Well, maybe not that last pair.
To the Christian, however, these material considerations are only as important as the care and concern they convey to those left behind. All too often, such matters are used to control others. Threats, for example to cut a family member out of the will, estrange us even further from those most in need of our love, sometimes permanently. Rather than using wills and such to demonstrate love, they are used to exercise power over the lives of others, even from beyond the grave.
Equally sad are the cases I know of where procrastination or neglect in making prudent arrangements for one’s family has led to the impoverishment of widows and orphans–the life insurance policy allowed to lapse, or the lack of long-term care insurance that necessitates the selling of the family home. Material preparation is important because, if abused or neglected, the consequences can haunt survivors for generations.
Of course, material preparation can lead us to neglect the second way we need to prepare for death: spiritually. Sometimes, rather than neglecting the material, we can be so assiduous in our attention to the legal and worldly details that we neglect the state of our souls. Of course, you might rightly expect me, as a preacher, to encourage you to commit to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, to put your whole trust in him, to repent of your sins, and do the other “religious” things that one is expected to do in order to be a Christian. Indeed, if you have not done so already, I encourage you to take a few moments out of your holiday errands to get right with God.
One of the things I’ve noticed about many people of faith, however, is that “getting right with God” seems to them the easy part. We make our confessions, either corporately or in the context of the sacrament of Reconciliation, we have little checklists of what it means to us to ensure, insofar as this is possible, that we will not end up in hell. (But that’s the traditional topic for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, as I already mentioned.) Oftentimes, however, the connection between getting right with God and getting right with each other is lost. It’s there in theory, of course. When we are forgiven, we are bidden to forgive, and when we have trespassed against others, we are obligated to seek their pardon. We all know this, and for the most part most of us are full of good intentions to accomplish neighborly and familial reconciliation as soon as we get the chance. Problem is, before many of us get that chance to make amends, something else happens: We–or they–die.
This brings me to the third and in many ways most important area of preparation for death, the relational, because the way we live now affects the way those who survive us will live. Sometimes we die “suddenly and unprepared,” as our Litany puts it. Other times, death isn’t sudden at all. But we still die unprepared. Why is this? Well, for one thing, when it comes to dying, nearly all of us are procrastinators. And if we are procrastinators when it comes to dying, we are also procrastinators in preparing to die. I could go on in this vein, but as is often the case, a story makes the point better than any sermonizing.
Some of you may have seen a movie called, “The Sixth Sense.” Without giving too much away (don’t worry, I won’t spoil its famous “twist,” if you haven’t seen it), I can say what is generally known: It is about the attempt of a child psychiatrist to treat a boy with unusually high anxiety. The boy’s secret is that he can see dead people. He naturally fears them because they bear the marks of their deaths on their bodies. In the movie, this can be quite graphic, because the ghosts all died violent deaths of one kind or another: murder by poisoning, suicide, gun accident, execution, fire. In other words, all the ghosts the boy encounters died “suddenly and unprepared.” Because of this, some of them are angry. They all have unfinished business.
When the boy finally entrusts the psychiatrist with his secret, and after the psychiatrist is convinced that the boy is indeed haunted by ghosts rather than merely psychotic, he asks the boy what he thinks the ghosts want from him. The psychiatrist suggests that he talk to the ghosts.
And then an amazing thing happens. Once the boy starts talking with the ghosts, he loses his fear of them and he discovers what I can only call a vocation. In fact, it is a deeply healing vocation. He can’t bring people back from the dead, but he begins to help the living by carrying out the final wishes of the ghost, or by conveying their apologies or regrets, or by helping to right their wrongs, either the wrongs that the dead committed or the wrongs committed against them.
The cathartic moment in the movie comes when the boy announces to his mother that he is ready to communicate with her. Throughout the film, the mother is fiercely loyal to her outcast son, but the son keeps his mother at a distance because he is afraid that if he tells her his secret, she won’t believe him, or worse, that she won’t love him anymore. Finally, he reveals his secret to her: He tells her that he can see ghosts and that Grandma visits him sometimes. She tells him he shouldn’t say things like that. But the boy persists, telling her, “Grandma says hi ….She wanted me to tell you…” The mother asks him to stop, but he continues, “She wanted me to tell you she saw you dance. She said when you were little, you and her had a fight, right before your dance recital. You thought she didn’t come see you dance. She did. She hid in the back so you wouldn’t see. She said you were like an angel. She said you came to the place where they buried her. Asked her a question? She said the answer is… ‘Every day.’ What did you ask?” The mother tearfully replies that she asked, “Do… Do I make her proud?”
This scene reveals a truth about human relationships. In the final analysis, who was haunted by that particular family ghost? The boy whom she visits from beyond the grave or her daughter who carries around the fear that she was a failure in her mother’s eyes? The boy may see dead people, but it is normal folks like you and me who are the haunted ones. We are haunted precisely because there are people in our lives who die before we can be reconciled to them. We are haunted by regrets, recriminations, resentments, repressions. We are haunted because when we had the chance to repent of the hurtful things we did, we did not; or when the dead had the chance to recant the hurtful things they said, they did not. Their silence haunts us from beyond their graves.
The question I lay before us today is: Will our silence haunt others when we are in our graves? If we do not attend to the material, spiritual, and relational aspects of life in preparation for death, the answer is yes.
But there is an alternative. We can use this Advent to prepare for Christ’s healing and reconciling presence among us by preparing for our own deaths. This may mean taking care of material preparations, such as changing our wills so that all of your worldly goods are bequeathed to St. John’s. (Just a suggestion.) This may mean arranging to make your sacramental confession before Christmas Eve and getting right with God. Or the material and the spiritual may be subsumed in the third, by attempting to lay the ghosts of our broken relationships to rest and to take steps to ensure that if we die suddenly, we will not die unprepared. We can resolve this Advent to reach out, with God’s help, to those with whom we need to be reconciled. If that person is already dead, then we can ask God for the grace to forgive that person, or to forgive yourself.
And if that person is not yet dead, you have a second chance in Advent to seek reconciliation. If you can’t think of anyone with whom or to whom you need to be reconciled, you are either a saint or you need to examine your relationships a bit more. Reconciliation is not just about big things, after all. It’s also about the petty regrets, recriminations, and resentments we all feel toward each other from time to time. Don’t let those haunt you, either. For if you let something haunt you while you’re alive, it will likely haunt others when you are dead.
This Advent, prepare for your death by attending to its material, spiritual, and relational aspects. For if you do so, with God’s help you will indeed be ready for the coming of Christ, both at Christmas and when he comes again to judge both the quick and the dead.