Recently I lost a sister through cancer. In my previous column, I described her death, how the pain and devastation of this disease eventually reduced her to a state wherein in many ways she resembled a baby… helpless, vulnerable, unable to speak, needing constant care.
Along with this, the cancer was causing her such pain that even the strongest pain-killing drugs were no longer effective and she was, at the end, reduced to a state of constant groaning.
As we, family and friends, watched this we recognized something utterly primordial, in terms both of human nature and faith. She was about to be reborn, and, in a strange way, she was again being reduced to being a baby. But something else was happening too. Her groans were those of a mother giving birth. In dying like this, she was both baby and mother.
Moreover, there was something else evident in her death—something which is perhaps the least understood aspect in the way that Christ died and in the way many persons who die from terminal illnesses parallel that death. Let me try to explain:
When we look at Christ’s life and death we see a curious design: A long period of intense activity, within which he is the one who is giving and doing, is followed by a brief period before his death within which he is helpless, passive, and is the one to whom things are being given and done to.
We see this pattern in Christ’s life. From the time he begins his public ministry until the night before his death, for the most part, he is the active one. He is the one who teaches, heals, feeds, consoles, challenges and prays for others. He is the doer—the miracle worker, the community builder, the instituter of cult, the minister. Only to a lesser degree do others minister to him.
Then, from the time he is arrested in the garden until he dies, things reverse. He enters his passion (passiveness/passio), his ministry now is to be receptive, passive, to let others do things to him. During his final hours, he does nothing except submit to what is being done to him.
It is both curious and ironic that it was precisely in those last painful hours, when he was most passive in terms of activity and ministry, that Christ did the most for us in terms of salvation.
We were graced through what Christ did for us during his active ministry, but we are particularly saved through what he did for us in his passion and death… a time when, in our ordinary manner of perception, he appears least active and most helpless in terms of doing anything for us.
My sister’s life and death closely parallel this design. Like Christ, she died young. Cancer caught her in the prime of her life and she died just days after her 54th birthday.
During her whole life she had distinguished herself as the prototype doer—homemaker, teacher, and, for the last 16 years of her life, Dean of Students at an all-girls academy where she was mother, big sister, nun, counsellor, doctor, advocate and companion to hundreds of young women.
She also played the same role in our own family, replacing my parents after they died 20 years ago and being, for the rest of us, the family centre and organizer. And she loved it… she loved being the doer!
But, like Christ, in the last days of her life the roles reversed. She was passive, the one to whom things were being done to. And, like Christ too, I don’t doubt for one minute that she was able to do more for us and give more to us during her passion than during all those years when she actively did so much for us.
Henri Nouwen, in a fine little book entitled In Memoriam, describes his own mother’s death. He tells how painful and great was her struggle to accept death fully in faith, to let go and how this so shattered his own previous naive fantasy of how a woman so full of goodness and faith should ideally die.
For a time, he admits, it did not make sense, until he realized how closely her death paralleled Christ’s. She had Christ’s selflessness, his heart and mind, and should it not make sense, he hints, that she die like him?
Why is the death of good people so often shrouded in pain, humiliation, struggle, helplessness and groaning? Because, as can be seen in Christ’s death (and in my sister’s death and in the death of millions of others), there is birth within death, death within birth, receiving within giving, giving within receiving.
The mystery of redemption, as can be seen from Christ’s life and death, is deep, paradoxical, partly unfathomable, constantly surprising and always life-giving.