Readings: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:21-23; Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11; Luke 12:13-21
It was back in 2009 that a former professor of mine at Loyola University, and her daughter, were tragically killed in a freak accident. They had been driving in the a severe snow storm and had stopped at a red traffic light when a large tree alongside the road came crashing down on the car killing them both. This was one of those situations where arriving a few seconds later or stopping the car a foot or two closer or further might just have prevented this tragedy. Similarly, we hear of people frustrated to have missed their flight only to learn later that the plane they would have boarded crashed, killing all on board.
In the thinking of some, these apparent twists of fate are actually the guiding hand of divine providence who ordains the exact day and moment of our death. And so the passing of a loved one is often spoken of as God calling him or her home. Jesus seems to corroborate this notion with his blunt comment about the rich man: Fool, this very night your life will be demanded of you! This conviction that God determines when we will die is captured in the words of one hymn which, in speaking of the moment of death, proclaims: No wall of stone can man defend when thou thy messenger dost send. This suggests that there is basically nothing we can do to influence the timing of our death and, when taken to extremes, implies that things like frivolous risk-taking behaviors or gross neglect of our health are of no consequence because, as the saying goes, if it’s your day, it’s your day!
And whereas the notion of a divinely predetermined moment of death may bring comfort to some, it also raises a number of questions: for instance, does God actively create the situations that bring about our death on the predetermined day? Does God inflict the cancer that kills us or stir up the hurricane that ends the lives of those destined to die on a certain day? Does God cause the malfunctioning of the plane that crashed to earth killing all on board? A perhaps more fundamental question is whether this taking of our lives is not the taking back a gift that was freely given us by God? Considered from our human perspective, anyone who gives a gift only to reclaim it later would be thought insincere and even devious.
Consequently, in the light of these questions and the problems they raise I wonder if the idea of God’s foreknowledge might be a better way of understanding God’s involvement with the moment of our death. For it is one thing to assert that God knows the day and moment of our death and quite another to insist that he actively brings it about. And if it is a case of God’s foreknowledge and not his actively bringing about our deaths at a moment of his choosing, then avenues of shared responsibility for the duration of our earthly lives open up to us. Yes, since our present physical lives are destined to end, there is a day (already known to God) on which we will die. However, the precise day and hour is something that we can, to some extent, be involved in determining. This may comprise something as simple as embracing healthy living habits and avoiding unnecessary risk-taking behaviors. Or it may incorporate depending on our sensitivity to the Holy Spirit’s inspirations cautioning us against certain courses of action that will endanger or end our lives, and favoring others that will preserve them. And although physical death is inevitable, this same attentiveness to God’s inspiration can–as the saints have shown–sometimes provide the premonition of our impending death so that unlike the foolish rich man in today’s gospel, we will not be caught unawares but can actively embrace physical death because of its bright promise of immortality.
In striving for this greater sensitivity and attentiveness, we do well to heed Saint Paul’s exhortation by seeking what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. And although we die physically on the day eternally known to God, our real life is hidden with Christ in God and when Christ [our] life appears, then [we] too will appear with him in glory. And so it is that God’s gift of life only appears to be taken back when we fall asleep in physical death. In reality it is merely a passing over into the fullness of Life, thus confirming Saint Paul’s assurance that God’s gifts and call are irrevocable. And so whereas we may not fully understand the nature or extent of God’s involvement with the day of our death, it is well to remember that we are not simply the passive recipients of a death sentence from on high, but are called to cooperate with God’s plan for our lives so that in a spirit of faith and love we are able to yearn with eager longing for the day that will bring us face to face with the One we have sought for so long.