On Wednesday morning I got called away as it appeared to those closest to him that Cliff would not make it through the day. Cliff is my brother-in-law’s dad. He is 92 years old. He has been widowed for many years and in these last years has depended on the attentive care of his children. Last week-end he suffered a massive stroke and in the days since has been in a hospital bed. It appears he is no longer aware of what is happening around him, but still his body struggles to breathe as the part of the brain which controls such basic functions forges on.
The surroundings and circumstances of course are entirely different from what Jesus looked down on from the cross. The hospital Cliff is in is shiny and new. Those charged with his care are doing all they can to make his last hours as comfortable as they possibly can. His children and grandchildren are able to lean in close and remind him of how much he is loved. On Wednesday afternoon a representative of the Veterans Administration came to talk about options for honoring his service to country for Cliff was a veteran. As part of his visit he attached a pin representing his World War II service to his flimsy hospital gown and saluted him. When we gathered Wednesday morning we offered prayers for his comfort and for the family’s strength and we spoke prayers of gratitude for the marvelous promise that Cliff was made God’s Own in the gift of Baptism many years ago. As is often the case, tears and laughter both have marked these days…
And while it is not easy, this one seems to me to be as good a death as any death can be. For there should always be as little suffering as possible. One should be surrounded by those one has loved. One ought to be honored for the gifts one brought to the world through a long life well lived. And even in those difficult times when none of those may be so, we are blessed to be among those who are able to commend the one we have loved into God’s tender care. As difficult as any death may be, yes, this one seems to be the best that it can be.
And again I can’t help but notice in this Holy Week that this death is so very different from the death that Jesus died. For aside from the sponge of sour wine offered to assuage his thirst, there were no physical comforts offered that Friday afternoon. His was a public, shameful, painful death. Jesus was subject to ridicule, not tender salutes. And in a remarkable reversal, even as Jesus hung dying on the cross he offered comfort to those gathered, rather than the other way around. For those who executed him by what they did and what they did not do, he pleaded for God’s forgiveness. To the thief hanging next to him, he extended the promise of salvation. To his mother and his disciple, John, he pointed them to a future of mutual care of the sort that should always be shared between mother and son. And at the end, those who heard him commend his spirit into God’s own hands must have known some measure of comfort as Jesus lived his faith in God’s promises with his dying breath.
Still, it was not by most any measure we would bring to it a ‘good death.’ And yet it was the most remarkable death that ever was. For even in his last words, Jesus gathered up all the gifts of God and extended them to those who would follow him. Forgiveness of sins. An endless future with God. And in the meantime, tender care for one another. Surely in these and all his dying words we hear Jesus’ own certainty that it all belongs to God. Our times of joy and times of struggle, our experiences of pain and in gifts of comfort shared, in our faith and in our doubt, in life and in death it all belongs to God.
And so it is when we bury Cliff we will use Jesus’ own words to send him on his way. For at the last Jesus said, “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46) And so for Cliff and for all of those whom God so loves we are privileged to say with resounding hope, “Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant…. A sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming…”
We are able to say this for one another because of what happened on that first Good Friday. No, Jesus did not suffer a “good” death. Instead he died a death which allows all of our deaths to be marked by the goodness of God’s gifts that carry with them the hope and the promise that it all belongs to God. In life and in death, and in all that they hold, it all belongs to God.
- Of all of Jesus’ words from the cross, do any carry special meaning for you this year? Why is that?
- How has the gift of Good Friday come to life this Holy Week for you?
- What measure of comfort does it bring to you to know that ‘it all belongs to God?’ How does that certainty make all the difference?