Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
27 November 2022
Today, we begin the Season of Advent, the period when we wait and prepare our hearts and minds for the coming of Jesus as a baby born in Bethlehem and in the Second Coming in all his glory at the end of time. As part of this preparation, one of the traditions in the Church is to reflect on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. So, during this Advent, we will have a sermon series based on the Four Last Things, beginning with the one today on Death. And, for our book study this Advent, we are reading C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, which is an allegory about a bus ride from hell to heaven. So, while you may be shopping in the stores to Christmas carols on Muzak, here at St. Mary’s, you’re going to get a heavy dose of Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.
We often hear about how American society avoids the subject of death. For instance, we use the euphemism, “passed away” or “passed on,” instead of “died.” And these days we prefer the term “celebration of life” rather than “funeral.” It’s not just contemporary American society that is reluctant to confront death. In China, Japan, and Korea, there is an old tradition of avoiding the number 4 because it is a homophone for the word “death.” So, just as we treat 13 as an unlucky number and try to avoid it, many East Asians will go to elaborate lengths to avoid the number 4, such as not having a floor in a building marked the fourth floor. The psychological term for this fear and avoidance of the number 4 is tetraphobia.
In contrast to the world, our Christian faith does not allow us to avoid the subject of death. We have constant reminders of death. Just look around you. The columbarium, where the ashes of our beloved dead are interred. The relics, which are usually on our altar, but they’re not there today because it’s Advent. They’re bone fragments from the bodies of St. Cecelia and St. Theresa. And the crucifix, on which hangs the dead body of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. If these visual reminders are not enough, we have constant references to death in our liturgy. At every Mass, we pray for the dead in the Prayers of the People, and we remember Jesus’ death when we receive the Blessed Sacrament. And soon we will hold a Requiem Mass for our beloved parishioner and friend, Kristina Krueger, who died yesterday.
In our daily devotions, the service of Compline, the fourth and last prayer of the Daily Office, which we pray before lying down to sleep, is filled with references to death. It begins with the line: “The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end” (Book of Common Prayer, p.127). The earlier version used to say, “a perfect death.” And later on, we find the prayer: “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit” (Book of Common Prayer, p.132). These are the last words that Jesus spoke as he died on the cross (Luke 23:46). And Compline ends as it begins, with a reference to death.
Lord, you now have set your servant free
to go in peace as you have promised;
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior,
whom you have prepared for all the world to see:
A Light to enlighten the nations,
and the glory of your people Israel (Book of Common Prayer, p.135).
This is the Nunc Dimittis, the beautiful prayer that the aged Simeon prays when he encounters the baby Jesus, brought to the Temple by Mary and Joseph. Now that he has achieved his life goal, he can die in peace (Luke 2:25-35). Compline is, in short, a gentle reminder of the sleep of death that will come to us all.
But our Christian faith doesn’t just end with reminders of death. It tells the story of how death has been vanquished by Our Lord Jesus and gives us hope of eternal life in him. The reason why we are not reluctant to confront death is because it no longer has power over us. We need not fear death because of Our Lord’s work of redemption on the cross.
I've recently been coming across the phrase “holy death.” We don’t hear this too often in Protestant contexts; it seems to be more a part of Roman Catholic piety. There are prayers to die a holy death, and, in Mexico, there is even a saint named “Holy Death” or Santa Muerte, venerated by the faithful and whose image is a skeleton clad in a hooded robe and carrying a scythe and a globe.
When I first came across the phrase holy death, what first came to mind was a scene of a quiet and peaceful death, a faithful Christian who has lived a long and good life and is surrounded by family and friends on her deathbed. But not all faithful Christians die this way. What about those who perish in natural disasters or tragic accidents? And when we think about the martyrs of the Church, they died anything but serene deaths – mauled by wild animals, burned alive, decapitated.
Clearly, a holy death does not depend on the circumstances in which we die. We have no control over the state in which we will find ourselves at the moment of death. Nor is a holy death a kind of psychological state that we attain through our own efforts. Some of you may be familiar with the Tibetan Book of the Dead, a Buddhist manual for guiding your mind through the process of death. Other than Last Rites and individual prayers, I’m not aware of any counterpart in our Christian faith to such a guide for a holy death.
For the Christian, our death is made holy by the presence of Our Lord and Savior Jesus. As we read in the Letter to the Romans, “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8). In life and in death, we belong to the Lord Jesus, and we are made holy by this relationship, cleansed of our sins and saved from hell unto eternal life.
For me, one of the most beautiful parts of our Prayer Book is the Commendation in the Burial Rite or funeral service: “Into thy hands, O merciful Savior, we commend they servant. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech thee, a sheep of thine own fold, a lamb of thine own flock, a sinner of thine own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of thy mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light” (Book of Common Prayer, p.483). In life and in death, we belong to Jesus. In life and in death, we are made holy by his presence.
Advent is a season when we reflect on the coming of Jesus in many forms. We think of his coming primarily as a baby in a manger in Bethlehem and in the Second Coming at the end of time. But Jesus comes to us in many other ways – in the hearing of his Word, in the receiving of the Blessed Sacrament, and in the presence of the Holy Spirit in our daily lives. And, in the end, Jesus will come to us at the moment of death. He will be there, granting us a holy death. We will fall asleep in the arms of his mercy and awaken to new life with him.
 Charles Pope, “The Night Prayer of the Church as a ‘Rehearsal for Death,’” https://blog.adw.org/2019/09/night-prayer-church-rehearsal-death/
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!