Every year on August 15, the Church bids us come to the final bedside of the Theotokos and learn how to die. It is an important lesson, and all the more important because the secular world offers us no clue. Indeed, the world seems intent on denying the reality of death. In earlier and saner ages, everyone mostly died at home, surrounded by loved ones who would pray with them in their final hours and wash and attend to the body after death had occurred. Even young children knew what corpses looked like and had contact with them. The phrase from the old Latin hymn Media vita in morte sumus—“in the midst of life we are in death”—resonated for everyone, whether they had heard the old hymn sung or not.
Now all has changed. Most people do not die at home but in the hospital, surrounded by professionals and strangers. After death they are whisked from the hospital room to the hospital morgue and from there, all too often, to the funeral home. At many funerals the corpse is not present, only a photo of the deceased taken while they were alive. And the final rites are not even necessarily called “funerals,” for the word is thought to savor too much of death. The rite is now called “a celebration of life”—one might imagine that the title indicated not the rites of death, but a birthday party. In short, today’s funeral industry, whose main function seemingly is to sanitize death and save the survivors from its horror and trauma, dominates today. The room where the casket may be found (if there is a casket) is called “the slumber room,” though no one ever sleeps there. And no one ever uses the verb “die.” No one now ever dies. They pass on. In every funeral chapel I have entered, soothing music is played in the background, often sentimental renditions of Protestant hymns that no one has sung in most Protestant churches for at least a generation. The function of the music is not liturgical, but anaesthetic. Not surprisingly in such a death-denying culture, no one knows how to die. That is perhaps why most people don’t want to talk about death, though the certainty of death hangs over them all. They have no clue.
But the Mother of God has a clue, and she knew exactly how to die: surrendering up her soul to her Son, surrounded by His Church. In this—her final act on earth—she gives us a lesson for eternity. This lesson consists of four parts.
First of all, dying for the disciple of Jesus consists of turning from this world with all its glory and heartbreak, with all its beauty and betrayal, to face the Lord. Of course we rejoice and find comfort in the love of friends and family that surround us in our final hours. But dying means that at the end we say goodbye to them all, and turn from them to face the Saviour, the eternal Fountain. Every day we have followed in the footsteps of the Theotokos and have said, “Behold, I am the handmaid (or servant) of the Lord.” On our final day we remain His servant, and we commit our soul to His hands one last time. We die as we have lived, looking to Jesus.
Secondly, for the disciple of Christ dying means dying in love and charity with all men. Saint Paul tells us of the folly of letting the sun go down on our anger (Ephesians 4:26); how much more foolish is it to end our whole life in anger? The Lord is crystal clear: if we do not forgive men their trespasses, God will not forgive ours. We say this each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, and this truth must guide us at the end. Before death silences our voice and stops our heart, we must freely and fully forgive anyone who has ever hurt us or sinned against us.
Thirdly, dying as a disciple of Christ means that we receive the Eucharistic Gifts one last time before embarking on our journey to eternal life. A wise person will not wait until after their Christian friend has died to call the priest, but will call for the priest while there is still time for their friend to receive Holy Communion one last time. That is the point of the petition asking God for “a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ,” for our good defense comes from this final sacramental bestowal of forgiveness. We step through the dark door of death as those freshly pardoned and at peace.
Finally, the death of the Theotokos teaches us that Christian death should come as the culmination of a Christian life. There is no sense living like a worldling, intending to beg forgiveness before the end comes in what some have called “an eleventh hour repentance.” For one thing, we have no guarantee that we will not die at 10:30. But more than that, the decision to delay repentance and faith brings its own dangers to the human heart. If we spend year after year saying no to Christ and pushing away His daily offer of grace, our heart does not remain unchanged by such denials and apostasies. Denying Christ makes the heart colder and harder, and at the end we may find ourselves incapable of turning to Him — which is the ultimate and eternal catastrophe. There was never a moment when the humble maiden of Nazareth turned from God and rejected Him. With each breath she said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord,” and that was why she was able to die in peace and triumph. Taught by her death, we can one day die in peace and triumph too.