The Word — Mercy is greater than death

Published 10:20 am Saturday, February 27, 2021

Ash Wednesday is right around the corner. In the Christian tradition it is the beginning of the great preparation for the Lord’s Resurrection at Easter. This time of fasting and penance keeps alive the memory of Jesus’ 40-day fast in the desert. It is never popular to talk of fasting or penance, but Jesus, who was never particularly worried about being popular, has told us, “Unless you do penance, you shall all likewise perish” (Luke, 13:3).

It is not popular to talk of death either, and yet the custom of receiving ashes, still practiced in several Christian denominations, is explicitly meant to be a reminder of death. “Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19). Lent is a time of purification, of eliminating sin from our lives. The memory of death is one of the great means to help us in this effort: “Remember thy end and thou shalt never sin” (Ecclus, 7:36).

The fact that we will die and be judged are realities that God wants us to face ahead of time. But even the thought of death causes us great fear. What shall we do? In answer to this, St. Francis de Sales, a 17th-century bishop in Switzerland, wrote that by humbly accepting death and by continually offering our lives to God, we will call down His mercy on us. For, even though our lives are “defiled with so many sins, yet it is the most considerable present we can make to Him…. Accept death, and unite it with that of Jesus Christ. I do not at all doubt but that he who is grieved for having offended God, and who accepts death willingly in satisfaction for his sins, will immediately obtain pardon.” Is there a greater consolation than to be assured of God’s pardon on your deathbed?

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This is what we can do to bring death out of the shadow of fear which surrounds it. We can offer our death in union with the death of Jesus to God the Father, in the same spirit as He did: as penance for sin and submission to His will (since all sin is a refusal to submit to His will). This begins to give us an active role in our death. We can’t control our own death, but we can start embracing it.

But as with any major event in our lives, we have to prepare. The world may view it as morbid to think of death, but for the Christian, death is the beginning of true Life. If we live our lives confessing and being sorry for our sins, regularly praying for a happy death, and offering to God the very fact that we will die, then we can have a lively hope that when death does come, it will find us at peace. It will find us confident that the mercy of God is greater than our own fear and weakness.

BR. MAXIMILIAN WATNER is on the the staff at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Buckingham County. He can be reached at