Well, we are closing in on the Christian Holy Week, beginning this year on April 2nd with Passion (or “Palm”) Sunday, and to end that week in remembrance and celebration of the most pivotal events of the Christian year—the passion, death and then resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth two-ish millennia ago.
Remembrance of those events cannot but elicit memories of our losses of loved ones often suddenly and without notice. Whether by accident, crime or by a mechanical failure within the body by embolism or aneurism or some undiagnosed malady, few sorrows strike us so deeply. Even though we know that such things happen, and Jesus in His teaching repeated as much a number of times: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour [of your demise]” (Matthew 25:13), that awareness nonetheless does little to assuage the pain of the loss. Even for those who have faith in eternal life, loved ones’ absences are keenly felt.
On the cusp of Holy Week and its remembrances, one wonders how Jesus’ followers dealt with the polar extremes they experienced—first His hailed entry into Jerusalem by crowds, followed soon by mock trial, torture and death … and then culminating in His “rebirth” in the resurrection, even though He had warned them that these were coming: “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Matthew 16:21)
But why did Jesus attract such a following? He didn’t go about proclaiming His own divinity and messianic role; far from it. In fact, He often asked people to keep silent about Him. But what Jesus taught, and what His followers would later do as well, extend far beyond those who have faith in Him as savior of souls. For it matters little whether one is Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or even a self-proclaimed atheist to see the goodness in “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 19:19, 22:39, Mark 12:31, et. al.) Thus, even those who don’t ascribe to the Christian faith will point to Jesus’ teaching as a guide for living, even if they don’t explicitly recognize it as such. For Jesus teaches mutual care for all, and that what you have doesn’t elevate you, but rather what you do with what you have: “‘Come, O blessed of my Father … for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee [thus]? And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:33-40)
Such is why Jesus and His apostles received such followings in their time, and why their teachings continue to this day even among non-believers. The Christian will recount Jesus’ reported healing of the sick, curing the blind, the deaf and the paralyzed, feeding thousands … and as a person believes, so shall he seek to emulate. And yet the goodness of charity and love toward those around us is self-evident virtue, regardless of creed.
“But Father … I have little.” Be not disheartened; even the least of us can most greatly touch the heart of God, as well as of others: “He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury; and he saw a poor widow put in two copper coins. And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all the living that she had.’” (Luke 21:1-4) And do we not remember the kindness of the Good Samaritan? (Luke 15). Do not even we honor most those who give most totally of themselves for others, regardless of the gift itself? Do not our hearts burst to see a young child give his only nickel to the poor?
Thus, we recall John Donne: “No man is an island … Each is a piece of the continent, A part of the main… Each man’s death diminishes me, For I am involved in mankind.” (“For Whom the Bell Tolls”) Well, if each man’s death diminishes each of us, does not each life have such potential to amplify each of us and, by extension, all the world? Remember (or look up) the famous “butterfly effect”, or even the theme of the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”. We are not so clairvoyant as to see the final carried forward benefit of any good deed.
So, the question is not so much of how one dies, but how one lives. John Quincy Adams urged in a speech: “Think of your forefathers! Think of your posterity!” In other words, emulate the admirable deeds of our forebears, and provide example for those who come after you. Believe that what you are, your children will become, and in such find motivation to stretch oneself even further for the good. If you find few traits in yourself you hope they might emulate, is it not time to change? After all, time waits for none, and “you know neither the day nor the hour.” And as Napoleon reportedly told a subordinate: “Go, sir, gallop!…ask me for anything you like, except time.” (The Corsican, R.M. Johnston).
So, as we near the end of Lent and the beginning of Holy Week and the onset of spring’s new life, let us spend a bit of “time in the desert” in important self-reflection … mentally musing what our own epitaph would be today, and thinking of what we want it to be when that inevitable time arrives … for, “[Any] Life, if well lived, is long enough.” (Seneca)
Editor’s note: Rev. Glenn Jones is the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and former pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Los Alamos.