Pentecost - 20th Sunday After
John 4:47 - For he was at the point of death
Everywhere, my brethren, from the rising to the setting of the sun; every moment from dawn to darkness, and from darkness on to dawn, the great tragedy of the death-bed is going on unceasingly. However uneventful a life may be, however buried amid the obscurity of quiet country places o of monotonous undistinguished towns, there comes to it one supreme moment when the greatness of human destiny is revealed in it, and a crisis comes to it which invests it with a dignity that makes the most careless passer-by uncover his head, and veil his glance, before the kingly presence of death. Ah! What a moment is the moment of death – a moment that has been hastening towards us from the day when the first faint cry of our infancy fell upon the ear of our mother, but a moment that is too often forgotten till the time is at hand when that other mother – mother earth – will open a grave within her bosom to receive our voiceless lips and our silent hearts!
You hear it said, from time to time, of someone whom you knew, with whose face3, and voice, and smile, you were familiar, with whom you transacted business, with whom you took our pleasure, with whom you were bound up in those close ties that arise out of social relationship; you hear it said of him some day, what was said of the son of the Centurion in the Gospel, “He lies at the point of death.” I do not know, I can only guess what thoughts pass through your minds at the announcement. If he were one with whom you were closely connected, whom you very dearly loved, your fist feeling will, doubtless, be a feeling of sorrow. But your sorrow will be mingled with something of startled surprise; for the truth is, that however familiar we may be with the world or with the fact of death, yet we are so accustomed to keep the idea of it at arm’s length, that we can hardly bear to think of it in connection with ourselves, or with anyone who is very dear to us.
If you have no opportunity of seeing your dying fiend you will speculate a little about him, and, from the materials of any experience you may have had, you will put together a picture of the last scene that is hastening to a close. You will picture the darkened room; darkened as if because the light of heaven would seem to mock the flickering lamp of life. You will picture the hushed voices, and the cautious footstep, and the guarded whisper that is loth to disturb the poor dying man, who seems already so far away from the common things of life; removed by some strange process from the world, in whose business and whose pleasures, he was once, nay lately, so active a participator. Ah! The pleasant active days are over with him forever. The most loving friends, even those whose hearts are almost breaking at the notion of his dying, even they have given up hope, and already regard him and speak about him as one whose connection with the world has virtually ceased. They have already settled the details of his funeral and the place of his burial. And should you wish to make a picture of the dying man himself, you will see him, through your tears, lying stricken down in the hopeless struggle. Death has surprised the fortress of his live, and makes good its way by every avenue. I have clutched at his heart strings, and has written its irreversible sentence so legibly, that even a child might red it on the pallid face and on the bloodless lips. The sunken eyes have some strange glaze upon them, and they turn with touching wistfulness to strive and read upon the faces round a sign of hope; but there is hope no more on any face. The priest is sent for.
Well, if you pursue your speculations thus far, if you make those pictures in your mind, they will be too gloomy to dwell upon; and in a few moments you will find yourself arranging a future in which your friend will have no part. You will find yourself thinking about his children, and how they shall manage without him; to whom has he left his wealth; who shall have his situation; who shall fill his vacant place.
Yes, you turn away your minds, as quickly as may be, from the contemplation of death to the affairs of life. You do not love to linger within the shadow of a tomb, even though upon that tomb be written the name of the dearest friend you ever had; you get back as soon as you can to the cheerful haunts of the living, and above all things you strive not to see in the death of your friend any picture or foreshadowing of your own.
Now, I, on the contrary, wish to induce yu to-day to give your thughts into my keeping, that I may form them into a short meditation upon death.
To everything that comes before us, besides the aspect that strikes us at first sight, thee is also an “other side” which often we do not see, but which is at least as important as what falls under ur observation. Look, for instance, at the world. Perhaps it may strike you at the first glance that it is a pleasant place enough. It is active and busy, and full of life. It has a thousand interests, one more valuable than another, and all appealing very strongly to the human heart. It is a place of wonderful energy and vast resource. It affords scope for the most varied powers. No gift that a man brings to it need be wasted, no talent that a man can devote to its services, need fail to find its proper sphere. There is a place in it for patriotism and public spirit, and those social and civil virtues that have made, and that make nations prosperous and powerful. There is a place too for eloquence and poetry, and for the arts that beautify life; for science and skill that make life full and convenient. In fact you have only to take up a newspaper of the day to see at a glance how much life, and vigor, and talent, are expended in the service of the world, At first sight indeed one is, as it were, oppressed with a sense of its vastness, and its greatness, and its power. But it has an “other side” as well, and that other side is seen when it is looked at from the bed of death. Looked at from that point of view, seen by the poor trembling mortal who lies apart from it all under the broadening shadow of death, how poor, and vain, and empty it all seems? The talents that have been employed in its service look very much as if they had been wasted. The hands that were stretched out so eagerly to grasp the prizes that it offered, are very empty indeed, as they lie stretched out to receive the last unction. Patriotism and public spirit, and the questions of the day, about which so much is written and spoken, and which are paraded, each in its turn, as if it were the “one thing necessary;” all these seem to have been paltry things enough to have engrossed the powers of an immortal soul; and if the soul has been sacrificed, as it too often is sacrificed, in the pursuit of them, ah! Then they are infinitely worse than paltry. Eloquence and poetry have lost the charm that was in them. Science and aft, and taste and skill, and business and politics; none of them has any spll to dissipate the horrors of the death-bed.
Believe me, it would be no unwise thing, it would afford no uncertain guidance in any affair we are engaged in, if, in the midst of it all, while passion urges and enthusiasm excites, while the energy of the world is carrying us away, if we were to pause and ask ourselves, how shall I regard this matter when I am lying at the point of death.
It so happens, as you know, that it fails to the lot of us priests to be brought, more than most men, into constant occasion of witnessing this “other side” of life and the world. When hope is gone, when the world and its works have gone out from the sick man’s chamber; when earth and its joys and its pursuits have bidden him good-bye for ever, then the priest is sent for, and the first question that occurs to him, in virtue of his sacred office, is a question which the world has never, and never will care to ask - :How is it with this man’s soul? After all the years, be they few or many, how is it prepared to meet the awful change that is about to pass upon it?”
Let me suppose a case. The man has been living just such a life as many o you are living now. He was engaged in the pursuit of labor or of trade, earning his daily bread, laying by more or less wealth as the years went quietly by. He saw people die around him from time to time, but it never occurred to him to think of death in connection with himself. He has always been so healthy and so strong; or, if he has suffered sickness, he has recovered so often and so surely, that he cannot but think that the chances are in his favor for a few more years. Of course he has never been so mad as to say to himself that he shall never die, but he has cultivated a sort of vague impression that death will never visit him till extreme old age shall have given due warning. He has been living anxiously enough, meeting, as most men meet, some troubles and some sorrows, but he has never met an trouble yet that would make him turn with anything like a sense of relief to the notion of death. He looks on life as one long feast, and he seems to think that, whatever may be the case with other men, he, at any rate, need not stand up from it till he likes, till he is completely satisfied. Meantime, how has it been with his soul? His body has always come in for a fair share, not to say more than a fair share, of attention. It had five hungry senses that clamored daily for their food, and would not let themselves be neglected. He has been solicitous for its well-being; he has made things as comfortable for it as he could, and, though in the wear and tear of life it has had its own discomforts now and then, yet these have never been of his own procuring. If it were a sin to deny it any gratification that it was in his power to give it, that is a sin which his bitterest enemy could not lay to his charge. He has been careful about his body; ah! But how has it been with his sul; with that nobler part of him on which God has set His image, which He has bought at the price of the heart’s blood of His only-begotten Son? Well, truth to tell, that is a question that has never given him much concern. He had so many things to do; he had his family to provide for; he had his business to mind; he had his farm and his oxen to look after; he had perhaps – for he was, it may be, a man of great public spirit – he had public matters and public interests to see to; he had to keep his eye on politics and to do his utmost for his party or for the political cause to which he had devoted himself. He had some or all of those things to do according to his station; how, then, could he have fund time to see after the state of his soul? True, God had intended that looking after his soul should be the main business of his life. He even said – He who saw at a glance, as no man ever saw, the collective interests of the world – He said, nevertheless, looking at them all, that only one thing was necessary, and that one thing was not wealth, nor rank, nor pleasure, nor science, nor art, nor taste, nor eloquence, nor poetry, nor politics; no, the one thing necessary wass the salvation of the soul. True, God said that, but, alas, the present always seemed so important, and the future, the long future of eternity, seemed so far off, that he quite forgot, or, if not forgot, at any rate disregarded, God’s decision about the matter. He was a Catholic, to be sure, and he went to Mass on most Sundays. It would not have been a creditable thing in the eyes of neighbors to show any marked disregard of religion in so external a matter as going to Mass on Sundays. He has even, after a fashion, made a sort of confession at station time, once or twice a year. That was another duty that Catholic society around him required of him, and Catholic society was satisfied when it saw him present himself on the day of the station, and answer to his name, and perhaps saw him sitting at the confessional waiting for his turn. But how as the confession made? Ah! Society could not know that. God knew it, and the priest had some painful ideas about it; and neither God nor the priest was satisfied. The priest probably fund him quite unfit for absolution, and told him to come again in a week or a fortnight. But though neither God nor the priest was satisfied, he himself was perfectly satisfied, and he has no notion of coming till his station time comes around again. And he never reflects that it is quite possible, becoming indeed more probable every year, that the next station time may find him in hell. So his life has gone on. Let me hope, as I hope form the bottom of my heart, that this is not the picture of the life of anyone who listens to me now. If, however, anyone should recognize in it a full or partial likeness to himself, let him listen to the end.
Well, some day – what day it shall be there is no knowing – probably it shall be some day when the world shall seem to be going specially well with him, he feels some slight indication of not being quite as well as usual. He is not alarmed. He has sometimes felt so before, and nothing serious came of it. He will lie by for a day or two; it will be like a rest from the pressure of business, and he will return to his ordinary pursuits with renewed vigor. Some way, however, after a few days he is not better as he expected; nay, he is palpably worse; the sickness is more serious than he thought, for he must give up, and acknowledge that he is seriously ill. A few days more, the illness is not going off; friends begin to be alarmed; the doctor has spoken to them outside the door, but they try to keep a good face in the sick room. They do not wish to depress or frighten the sick man. But hope gradually wanes and dies within them. The man has lived his life.
Ah! Poor man, though he does not know it, yet the pleasant days of life are drawing to a close. The shadow of death is deepening around him fast, hiding him away from the world he loved, and the business he labored in, and the pleasures that were so dear to him, from all the things that made so large a part of his life, and engrossed so large a share in his thoughts; from all the things which, perishable though they were, he loved better than he loved his soul, or his soul’s salvation.
Bring him now his newspaper, and let him hear how the world he loved is going on. Read for him the state of the markets, and the prospects of trade. Read him a speech somebody has made upon some question in which he was deeply interested. Turn to the record of politics, and let his dying ears drink in once again the well-known watchwords. Oh! How strange the old cries sound now that he is dying. Tenant-right, Vote occupy him. Never shall he care about them anymore. And he knows that when the grass shall have grown, and when the leaves of many an autumn shall have fallen upon his grave, the world y Ballot, Home rule, these are things that used to occupy him. Never shall he care about them anymore. And he knows that when the grass shall have grown, and when the leaves of many an autumn shall have fallen upon his grave, the world will go on in its old course, repeating the same or newer watchwords. He is done with it now, and now, oh! God, his soul is in peril of hellfire.
Nay, do not mock his dying moments with news about the world. Send, rather, for the priest.
Strength is failing, and the faculties of the mind are growing dim. At last, poor wretch, the question of the soul forces itself to the surface, and with failing powers, and exhausted energies, with a brain confused by wakefulness, and a heart distracted by pain, the work has to be faced, to do which God had given all the time that has been so sadly wasted, but to do which now, there only remains the last few moments.
Do you think is that a time to do properly a work so important? Do you think it is a favorable opportunity to set right the mistake of a whole lifetime? Pain and anguish rack the fainting heart, the heaviness of death oppresses the soul; the body and mind are weaker now than ever they were before; sense and intellect are losing any keenness they ever had. The life has been wasted as far as the soul is concerned, and in a few moments the soul must stand before the Judgment Seat of God. Do you think that is a favorable time to make the first good confession that has been made for years?
Let the curtain fall, let us pry no closer into the awful secrets of a sinner’s death-bed.
My brethren, we, too, shall die; when, we know not, certainly sooner than we think. Oh! If you who listen here to-day, if during these, the days of your vigor, while your own good-will can remedy the past, and mold the future; while your souls are in your own hands; while sense and intellect are unimpaired; while time and opportunity ae yours; if you would but go to Jesus; if you would but seek him in the person of his priest; if you would only make all the past secure behind you by one good confession; then, believe me, you would have done the one thing necessary to take the sting from death, and the victory from the grave.