Homily: “On ‘To Die is Gain'”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Solemn Mass of Christian Burial for Terry Young, 2 March 2017.

Jesus actively loves all His creatures completely and absolutely, and upon His creatures Jesus also makes an active demand. He loves and keeps all his creatures—angels, human beings, and all the way down the biological chain of animate and inanimate creatures—because through Him all things were made, and without Him was nothing made that is made. Jesus Christ is the Artist through Him the eternal Father spoke the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and the whole universe is His canvas, and every brushstroke on this canvas of reality expresses the love between the Father and the Son. And this means every single detail of creation, the littlest of things in our lives, matter a great deal to God, for all the details express the relationship God has with His creation—a relationship of love, of reconciliation, of stewardship, and of peace.

Jesus, the perfect lover, also makes an active demand on us. One of the many ways this demand upon us finds expression is in what are known as the “Hard sayings of Jesus.” These are verses in the New Testament that confront us, and have confronted the Church for two-thousand years. We cannot avoid them, as much as we might want to. These hard sayings include: “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me,” and “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Another is “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” There are many more. Now each of these would require separate homilies to begin to rightly interpret, and I am not going to do that here. And in truth, it is often the case that some of the hard sayings display Jesus of Nazareth with a rather dry but deadly sense of humor. His demands upon us are sometimes made with a subtle smirk and slightly raised eyebrow.

A hard saying from elsewhere in the New Testament, not from Jesus but from Saint Paul, however, I will spend a bit of time on. In Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, in the first chapter, he writes, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Now, Saint Paul was indeed a mystic; he was a persecutor of the early Church who was knocked to the ground by the blinding light and voice of Jesus confronting him: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” So for Paul to say “to me to live is Christ” is not the hard part of this saying, because his whole life turned around, turned toward God, and so he reckoned all aspects of his life to Jesus and found in Jesus a new outlook. The hard part of the saying are the words after that: “to die is gain.” How can we understand these four words? And how can they provide Christian people solace in times of grief?

The key is to understand the nature of God. God is love. His love is infinite, and He made His creatures in His infinite love, so that in seeking Him we might find Him. God is constantly seeking us, constantly inviting us into deeper relationship with Him. This is why Saint John tells us in our Gospel that Jesus desires to lose nothing of what the Father has given Him. The will of God is that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life—that everyone who loves Jesus, listens to Jesus, is confronted by Jesus, and offers him or herself in humility to Jesus will begin to share in His feast; will live a life of ever-deepening gladness and rejoicing; will cultivate their courage and strength to face life’s trials and remember to call to Jesus for help, for to us and our trials He offered Himself to us as a perfect sacrifice for the whole world. “Him who comes to me I will not cast out.” There are no exceptions to this teaching, and there does not appear to be any particular nuance to grasp: All who respond to Jesus will be embraced, loved, and held in His arms for ever.

And so while “to die is gain” is a hard saying, a confronting saying, let us not hear it as a condemnation of this life, but a fulfilment of this life. We are created in order that we can begin to understand what true love actually is, so that when we take the next steps of the journey the loving relationships we have experienced on earth are not replaced, nor forgotten, nor trivialized, but fulfilled, remembered, and forever treasured within the company of heaven, the angels, the saints, the faithful departed, and within the company of God Himself—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the very nature of Whom is love: a love that shines on us, fills us, purifies us, and remakes us. Amen.