Death's Death


For my friend John O’Brien

Even saints can have trouble dying. As St. Thérèse struggled with tuberculosis in her final months, she wrestled with one question: how does one die? She had actively and ardently pursued God throughout her short life, seeking perfection especially in the little things. But now that it had come to the end, she did not know what to do. How does one die? How can one die actively, with their eyes open?

In this week’s gospel we meet Simeon, a man close to death. But there was something unfinished. He was “awaiting the consolation of Israel” (Lk 2:25). There was something still to be received. Guided by the Holy Spirit, he comes to the temple on the day of Jesus’ presentation. Taking the Christ-child into his arms, that unfinished something is fulfilled: “now you let your servant go in peace...for my eyes have seen your salvation” (Lk 2:29-30). Receiving the consolation of Israel, holding salvation in his arms, Simeon is ready for death. He has received the promise of life.

Death overtakes us. We are entirely passive to it. Even if one actively pursues death, in the end, it still comes to us. Perhaps it is a strange parallel to draw, but the same is true of God’s salvation. Simeon did not earn the sight of God’s salvation. He waited for it, he was eager for it, but in the end, it was laid in his arms. He simply received it. Like death, redemption overtakes us.

Fear and anxiety are common for those nearing the end of life. Something is happening to them that never happened before. There may be stopgaps and ways to gain more time, but there is no ultimate solution. There is no way out. But, there is a way through. The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that Jesus died that he might “free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life” (2:15). When Simeon receives the child in his arms, his fear of death is destroyed. Now this servant can depart in peace. As death overtakes us, so God’s salvation overtakes death, and anyone who will receive it. The Christ is the death of death, but he is life to all who receive him.

In the gospel this weekend, the child Jesus is presented in the temple. But in Simeon we see what is really happening. Mary and Joseph are there to present Jesus to the Lord. But Jesus is there to present Simeon. Holding the child in his arms, Simeon, in turn, is presented to the arms of God, where, like this slumbering newborn, he will rest in peace. In Christ, life overtakes us.