Jesus' life is an example of the Christian life. His death is no different. Willing to submit to the will of his Father, even unto death, Jesus shows us the true cost of following God. But even in death, Jesus provides an example, not only of extreme obedience, but also of how to die.
Ars Moriendi, the art of dying, was a 15th-century book of instructions to assist in dying well. Explaining that the Christian need not fear death, it outlined the five temptations that confront a dying person: lack of faith, despair, impatience, spiritual pride, and avarice. Illustrated with woodcuts, Ars Moriendi showed how to overcome these temptations and achieve a good death. The instruction was particularly relevant in an era when the Bubonic plague was a constant threat.
Jesus' last words on the Cross provide another model of ars moriendi. He reconciles with his persecutors and his neighbors. He takes care of his earthly estate. Jesus acknowledges his spiritual and physical state as a dying man, and he accepts his life's end. Finally, Jesus actively commends his spirit to his Heavenly Father. Though his death was inevitable, Jesus was not passive. He took an active role in his own death.
The Ars Moriendi woodcuts were especially relevant in an age where the plague changed the way Europeans viewed death. In a different way, Americans are undergoing a shift in how they view death. Despite living longer, healthier lives, Americans also experience longer periods of declining health. A recent study found that most deceased elderly "were already sick with their eventually fatal conditions three years before death." Those three years are filled with sometimes grueling medical treatment, but they also afford the opportunitynever before so regularly availableto prepare for death. With the understanding that many people will have this opportunity, we can look to Jesus' seven words from the Cross to learn what it means to prepare for death.
Healthy people often say they want to die suddenly, says Ira Byock, author of Dying Well and director of palliative medicine at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, yet quick deaths leave much uncompleted. They are the most difficult type of death for families to accept. "In contrast to an abrupt, easy death," writes Byock, "dying of a progressive illness offers precious opportunities to complete the most important of life's relationships."
Often relationships cannot be completedwhich Byock defines as having nothing left unsaidwithout forgiveness. From the Cross, Jesus says, "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing." Jesus forgave the very people who mocked and killed him. If we hold grudges or harbor anger, those who work with the dying say, peaceful deaths only come after we offer forgiveness. Forgiving is a Christian duty throughout our lives, but it is an essential part of the work of dying. Seeking forgiveness is equally important. Asking for forgiveness helps complete relationships with friends and family. And knowing that we need forgiveness helps us overcome the temptation of spiritual pride.
When the crucified criminal says, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom!" Jesus offers a remarkable promise. "I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise." This criminal who admits that he deserves death also confesses his belief in Jesus as Messiahovercoming the temptation of lack of faith outlined in the Ars Moriendi woodcuts.
Jesus' promise to his fellow crucified that they would be reunited in paradise is an encouragement to all who face death. Having faith in Christ's work on the Cross offers comfort at a time when thoughts of the life to come are especially relevant.
'Here Is Your Mother'
The dying wonder who will care for their loved ones. This is just as true for the 21st-century man leaving behind his wife as it would have been for a first century Jewish man caring for his mother. Jesus tells his mother "Dear woman, here is your son," and his disciple, "Here is your mother."
This scene is a metaphor for the expanded family into which Christians are reborn. This family has the responsibility of taking care of its bereaved members. Yet Jesus also shows us his concern for his mother's welfare by discharging a very earthly duty. Wrapping up worldly affairs is so important that Martin Luther lists it as the first task in his "Sermon on Preparing to Die."
As Jesus neared his death, he was no stranger to spiritual anguish. Jesus' fourth words from the Cross reflect this. "Why have you abandoned me?" he asks God.
Jesus carried a burden that none of us will: the sins of the world. His spiritual torment, as a man who had fully communed with his God, was also unique. We will never know full communion with God only to have it cut off. But for a patient receiving a diagnosis of a terminal illness, it can seem as if God is absent. Here is the temptation of despair. If God is absent, what hope is there? Jesus acknowledges his spiritual state, but in doing so he shows us how to work through despair. Honestly dealing with God, even when we feel forsaken by him, is the first step.
Dependence with Dignity
Jesus also experienced physical anguish. "I am thirsty." In a culture that prizes independence, we often confuse autonomy with dignity. We worry about being a burden on others, and we are bothered by the "indignity" of needing help with the most basic tasks: dressing, bathing, even using the bathroom. The inability to care for oneself is often used as an argument for physician-assisted suicide. Here we see the temptation of impatience. In an age where death comes after years of decreasing function, we must learn that dignity does not come from being able to button a shirt or use the bathroom independently. Recognizing our dependence on others and learning to wait for God's timingrather than ending our own life or stubbornly refusing helpare important steps in preparing to die.
Not only is dependence a practical necessity, Byock says allowing others to mind our needs can be a gift to caregivers. For Christians, this interdependence is a natural part of being the body of Christ. The healthy need the ill as much as the ill need the healthy. Practicing dependence cultivates contentment. This helps us avoid avarice, or the inordinate desire for wealth.
Those who work with the dying often report being amazed at how long a dying person clings to life. And then, when a birthday, a visit from a family member, or another important event passes, the dying person quickly lets go. Jesus' first five words have shown us how to prepare to die. At the end, Jesus shows us how to die. Recognizing that his life is complete, Jesus says, "It is finished."
In his book, Mrs. Hunter's Happy Death, John Fanestil writes, "When I am asked to name the single greatest difference between the typical death in our day and the deaths represented in the accounts from the 18th and 19th centuries, I reply, 'the vitality and agency of the one who is dying.'" Fanestil, a pastor who has worked with many dying congregants, says they are often very aware that their body is shutting down. Yet, personally, they are very much alive.
Stories abound of people who have lived through a coma who later relate tales of their experience. Whether they hear sounds around them or simply have some form of consciousness, far from being inertas they physically appear to betheir minds are alert. They are personally very much alive.
So, Jesus' final words, "I entrust my spirit into your hands," show Jesus participating in his death. Luke 23:46 says, "And with those words, he breathed his last."
As with all spiritual work, preparing to die is best practiced throughout life. Forgiving and taking care of others and acknowledging to God our needs are routine spiritual duties. While our age of gradual dying affords unique opportunities to grow spiritually, how we die is often a reflection of how we live. So while Jesus' words can be read as ars moriendi, they are best contemplated as the art of living.
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Ira Byock's website has more about his work as a hospice doctor.
"Living Well at the End of Life," a study by the Rand Corporation, discusses the shift to gradual dying.
"I Thirst" is a meditation on the last words of Christ.
Other Christianity Today articles on end of life issues include:
Euthanasia Confusion | Newspaper accounts of end-of-life debates too often muddle the issues. (Feb. 1, 2007)
Go Gently into That Good Night | Fear of mortality lies at the root of our bioethics confusion. A Christianity Today editorial (Jan. 2, 2007)
Choosing a Partner, Not a Future | Margaret Kim Peterson, author of Sing Me to Heaven, discusses her marriage to a man dying of AIDS and the theological lessons she learned. (August 1, 2003)
A Green and Dying Tree | I saw the fruit of healing prayer even as AIDS was taking my husband's life. (August 1, 2003)
A Good Death | My husband was more whole on his deathbed than at any other time in his life. (May 22, 2000)
Death, Inc. | What the funeral industry doesn't want you to know. (April 26, 1999)
Christianity Today's life ethics section is available online.
More Holy Week articles include:
CT Classic: The Jesus We Never Got | Elijah stands for what I want in a God: someone to offer an escape route around life's messiest problems. By Philip Yancey (Dec. 8, 1997)
Resurrected Life | Quotations about Easter to stir heart and mind. (April 2, 2007)
Images of Calvary | Contemporary Christian artists reflect on Good Friday. (April 3, 2007)
CT Classic: You Can't Keep a Justified Man Down | An interview with N. T. Wright, author of The Resurrection of the Son of God. (April 1, 2003)