The Hail Mary ends by juxtaposing our present with our end, our “now” with “the hour of our death.” It is helpful to begin our meditation on these words by thinking of the old ladies who are such famous devotees of the rosary – and thinking, particularly, of their annoying habit of whispering their prayers, as if they are actually saying the words of the rosary. Perhaps – is it possible? – those old ladies are wiser than we. Perhaps they have learned to pray the Hail Mary. And perhaps, for them, “the hour of our death” is not such an abstraction as it sometimes is for us who are younger.
At some point in life, the hour of our death becomes an approaching reality, something we can no longer ignore. Today, younger people are often embarrassed by the Tradition’s insistence on thinking about this. Old prayer books, and old religious art, are full of reminders that we will die, prayers for a happy death, meditations on what it means to be truly prepared for our end.
Nowadays we think that is morbid. But it is a real strength of Catholicism that our faith does not abandon us at the hour of our death. We even have a sacrament for it. (Although Vatican II reminded us that you can receive the Anointing of the Sick before you are actually at your dying breath, it remains a sacrament specifically focused on facing death.) And our most cherished prayer reminds us, dozens of times a day, that death is around the corner.
But then, death is part of life. We all face the death of our grandparents, parents, and spouses, and all too many of us – including three of my closest friends, for example – even experience the death of our small children. It is no mercy, no embrace of life, to ignore the hour of our death.
Now, death is not right. We rebel against it because we know we are made for eternity. That instinct is right.
But the Bible tells us death is a punishment, a consequence of sin. Sin, separation from God, is the real tragedy. But punishment is never ultimate; punishment, by definition, is meant to correct us. It is a gift to get us on the right track.
How does death get us on the right track? By reminding us that we are finite. Our projects will end. Our strength will end. Our influence will end. We are not the ultimate!
That is part of the beauty of including the hour of our death in the Hail Mary. The Hail Mary is all about grace, about the work God does for us. We are blessed because He is with us. On the one hand, yes, truly blessed. On the other hand, blessed by him, only by him. We are in need.
So we ask for prayers. We recognize that we are sinners: “pray for us sinners.” And we recognize that in the end, we face an ultimate that we really cannot surmount. We can play make believe with Pelagianism; we can pretend that life comes down to our own moral heroism. But when it comes to death, there is no way around. We must acknowledge that we need a higher power!
This is the gift of death (as it is also the gift of our need for sleep, and the command to keep the Sabbath). Like any punishment, it won’t necessarily work; we can ignore this corrective, and still go wrong. But to ponder death is to learn that we need a strength we do not have.
More than that, though, the Catholic lives life in light of the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus and the Assumption and Coronation of Mary. Death is not the last word. Glory is the last word. God affirms life beyond our wildest dreams. Tomorrow we die, but after that, we will eat, drink, and be merry – in some sense – far beyond our wildest hopes. Even these mortal bodies will be filled with the light of the presence of God.
To see heaven, though, we have to see that earth is not the end. To see the glory of God, we have to see that human strength is not the way.
This is as true spiritually as it is bodily. Spiritually, too – indeed, even more than bodily – we need resurrection, we need the power of God beyond death. To ask for help at the hour of our death is to profess that God’s goodness will be there, far surpassing our weakness.
What have you learned from facing death? How do you experience hope in the resurrection and in heaven?
Click here for the entire series on the “Hail Mary.”