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On the Art of Dying as a Christian

As I’ve been caring for seriously ill patients with COVID-19 on ventilators over the last few weeks, death and dying have been on my mind. The pandemic has forced all of us to confront the reality of our frailty, our vulnerability, and our mortality. Even the separation and isolation occasioned by the pandemic response have felt like a kind of death as we are cut off from those we love. Life is no longer something we can take for granted. Perhaps this fresh awareness of our mortality is something we can carry with us beyond the pandemic. We are mortal beings, so we must prepare to die.

For the Christian, dying, no less than living, is a matter of discipleship. The apostle Paul yearned “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” “Becoming like him in his death”: here Paul gives us a striking vision of discipleship. For the apostle, all the virtue and moral beauty and attractiveness of our Lord shone forth most clearly in his death and dying. Our Lord made an art of dying. How can we follow our Master in this way?

First, we may die in sweet resignation to the sovereign will of our Father.

“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.” Under the unthinkable duress of an anticipated crucifixion, our Lord cried for deliverance but submitted to the Father’s will. The cup was not removed, the betrayal commenced, and Jesus went willingly, indeed unwaveringly, to the cross. “I seek not my own will, but the will of him who sent me.” It pleased the Father to bruise him for us, and it pleased Jesus to do the bidding of his Father and give himself for us. “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Jesus felt deeply the pain of parting from his beloved disciples but entrusted them to his Father’s faithful care—“I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world…Holy Father, keep them in your name.” So, as his beloved disciples, we may also die in patient and trusting submission to the will of God, entrusting ourselves and those we leave behind to the all-good, all-wise Creator and Sustainer of all things—our heavenly Father.

Second, we may die with eyes set beyond death to glory.

The author of Hebrews invites us to look upon the dying Master, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame.” Before his death, Jesus prayed, “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” Now, “seated at the right hand of the throne of God”, he is worshipped in heaven and on earth, and God has “highly exalted him, and bestowed on him the name that is above every name.” And we will share in his glory. “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me.”

We are called “into his own kingdom and glory” and will “obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” “This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are unseen but to the things that are unseen.” With eyes set upon as yet unseen glory, we may with Jesus embrace death with wide open arms, for “to depart and be with Christ is far better.”

Third, we may die in the freedom of love.

It is remarkable that our Lord paused on his death march to Golgotha to empathize with the weeping women of Jerusalem. “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.” In the midst of his present pain, he paused to feel their future pain. And then there is that jarring cry, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This was a man concerned for his enemies and ready to make peace with them, even as they tortured and killed him. Only someone completely emptied of himself, someone truly humble, someone with nothing to lose, could experience such freedom and manifest such love in his dying. The centurion, moved at the manner of Jesus’ death, concluded, “Truly this was the Son of God.” And the matchless dying love of Christ makes this freedom and love possible for us. United to the resurrected Lord, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain. “For all things are yours…the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” Thus we exult, “O death, where is your sting?” Freed from fear for self, we may die in the freedom of love for God and others.

Before his ascension, Jesus showed Peter “by what kind of death he was to glorify God.” I wonder, by what kind of death will you and I glorify God? Are we ready to die like Jesus? By God’s grace, may the beauty and glory of our Lord revealed in his artful dying be reflected in us, so that whether we live or die, we become more “like him in his death.”

 

I have set the Lord always before me

Because he is at my right hand,

I shall not be shaken

 

Therefore my heart is glad, and

my whole being rejoices;

My flesh also dwells secure.

For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,

Or let your holy one see corruption.

 

You make known to me the path of life;

In your presence there is fullness of joy;

At your right hand are pleasures

for evermore

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