Good Friday: The Day Death Died

Like many people from North Carolina, Carl Wade and his wife Ginger loved NASCAR racing.

On weekends, they would head down to Charlotte’s Motor Speedway to see, what they considered, the best car racing in the world.

Carl and Ginger would rent choice seats right by the pit stop area to take in all the action. At one race, around four years ago, they got some unexpected action. It happened like this: A car came zooming into the pit stop to gas up. Carl stood up to get a better look. Ginger noticed that Carl stumbled forward a few steps. At first, Ginger didn’t think anything of it but then Carl fell flat on his face.

Ginger rushed over to her husband along with some other people that saw what happened. Ginger called out to her husband as she hoisted him up. Carl didn’t answer. They rushed him to the hospital but to no avail. At 41, Carl Wade was pronounced dead on arrival.

What started out as a wonderful day for Carl and Ginger turned into sad and tragic event.

No one thought someone as young and healthy as Carl would suddenly drop dead. Yet he did. A friend of Carl summed up the enigma of his death by saying, “It was his time to go.”

On Good Friday, the Church not only invites us to meditate on the death of Christ, but on the truth about this reality we call death. Death remains one of those topics few people like to discuss. Yet in spite of our natural repugnance of death, we need to understand it to live our life well. In light of faith and reason, what can we say about the reality of death?

For starters, death will cut us all down sooner or later. No matter how well we eat or how much we exercise, we will all come to the grave. No one will escape death. That includes kings, princes, presidents and prime ministers. Death doesn’t discriminate. It treats everyone the same. Nonetheless, many of us live as if death didn’t exist. Nonetheless, death surrounds us. This year nearly 700,000 Americans will die of heart disease. Cancer will take out another 500,000 Americans. Stroke will strike down about 162,000 and accidents will claim 106,000 lives in our country. To think that we stand beyond death’s grip makes no sense. We need to face up to death with the right attitude. I think Thomas à Kempis, a great master of the spiritual life, describes well the right attitude towards death:

“Every action of yours, every thought, should be those of one who expects to die before the day is out. Death would have no great terror for you if you had a quiet conscience. … Then why not keep clear of sin instead of running away from death? If you aren’t fit to face death today, it’s very unlikely you will be tomorrow.”

If we cannot do anything about the eventuality of our death, why pay any attention to it? In other words, why worry about something that you cannot do anything about? That seems to make sense.

However, in the light of faith it doesn’t. Death is by far the most important moment of life because death seals our eternal fate. Death closes the time to merit God’s graces. What we have written in the book of our life the day we die remains forever and cannot change. For this reason, the Church urges us to prepare ourselves for the hour of our death. The earlier Christians use to pray, “From a sudden and unforeseen death, deliver us, O Lord.” At the end of our life only one thing matters, what we have done for God and for others. Everything else we should consider vanity. In a word, death reminds us to live well.

While many people view death as something negative, Christ’s death on Good Friday changes death into a positive reality. In light of Christ’s death, it no longer only means decay and destruction, but life with Christ. St. Paul says it best, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).

He goes on to say, “This saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him” (2 Timothy 2:11). What is essentially new about Christ death is this: Through baptism, we as Christians, have already died with Christ sacramentally, in order to live a new life here that will continue in the next. The fact that we already, as Christians, live a new life in Christ means our death will bring us forever into the presence of Christ.

This understanding of death should clarify the Christian meaning of the “good death.” A good death doesn’t mean a pain free death or a peaceful death. Nor does it mean dying at home in bed at an old age with all our family gathered around us. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a peaceful and uneventful death. However, the good death, in the Christian tradition, means to die in a state of grace with Christ. As long as a person dies in a state of grace with Christ, the circumstances of one’s death shouldn’t really matter.

The Church’s liturgy sums up well the meaning of death for us Christians: “Lord, for your faithful people life is changed, not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.”

May God bless us with a good Easter — and, one day, a good death.

Legionary Father Andrew McNair is a

theology professor at Mater Ecclesiae

College in Greenville, Rhode Island.