One of the principal reasons Christians are not more effective in evangelizing the world is because we have not fully assimilated the reality of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus rose from the dead, conquering sin and death. Death is no longer anything but a passage from this life to eternal life. For those who die in friendship with Christ and entrust themselves to Him, death is actually beautiful because it enables the soul to see God and foreshadows the resurrection of the body that our Lord and our Lady already enjoy in heaven. Death is also beautiful because it is a participation in Christ’s most loving action: His crucifixion and death for our salvation. We can actually model the most loving action of Christ prior to seeing Him face to face, if only we choose to die for Christ as He chose to die for us. Given this rich understanding of death, no wonder that St. Paul can exclaim, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:54-55). Truly, we are victors in Christ and should have no fear of death.
Without detracting from this solid theological foundation, I would be remiss if I did not set forth the very natural and human reasons why most of us fear death. These range from the temporary separation from loved ones, to a fear of how God will judge us, to doubt about what exactly happens when we die. But even more foundational than these natural and human reasons is a profoundly theological reason for why death is so hard to bear. Death is hard because when God created man, He put eternity in the human heart (Ecclesiastes 3:11) and death challenges our faith in the fulfillment of that promise. Death forces us to face the abhorrent contradiction between a desire for eternal life and a body of clay that cannot, by definition, live forever. This contradiction is ultimately resolved by the union of the soul with God and the resurrection of a heavenly body which reattaches to the soul. But it is not generally clear to the person dying that the soul will be reunited to the body; tremendous faith and hope in God is required to face this transition with peace.
Only our Lord Jesus Christ can give us the necessary grace not to fear death, to see in death an opportunity to unite one’s self more profoundly with Christ. We should ask for this grace every single day. I submit that this grace of not fearing death is essential to our own sanctification and to the evangelization of others.
Firstly, with respect to our own sanctification, how can we possibly have peace in Christ if we are afraid of dying? The fear of death effectively robs Christians of the peace that Christ won for them on the cross. So long as we are afraid of dying, we can have only a conditional peace that is dependent on not dying and upon those we love not dying. But that is really just another way of saying that we will never truly enjoy the good gifts that God gives us because we will constantly have an underlying fear that at any moment, we could lose those gifts. Instead of having confidence that our lives are in the hands of the Heavenly Father and none can take us from His hands (St. John 10:28), we fail to enjoy the gifts God gives us because we attach our hearts to the gifts in a disordered way, while failing to attach our hearts to the giver who is far better than the gifts, God Himself. We must see that accepting the fear of death is human and natural, but it makes it impossible to truly live with peace in our hearts. And without peace, we will emphatically lack the clarity to hear the Lord and do His will, which are essential conditions for salvation (St. Matthew 7:21). The truth about the fear of death is that it hinders our sanctification and transforms the beautiful things of the Lord into sources of anxiety and uneasiness. This, in itself, is sufficient reason to reject the fear of death by begging Jesus and Mary to vanquish the fear of death from our hearts.
What is equally disturbing, however, is that the fear of death not only hinders our sanctification, but it is a primary cause of our inability to evangelize others. This is indirectly true because unless we are sanctified, our witness to Christ, our evangelization, will be compromised. But the fear of death also directly frustrates our evangelization of others. The Holy Spirit is the principle of evangelization in the Catholic Church, the primary agent of evangelization (Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, Apostolic Exhortation). Where the Spirit is, there is the love of God which casts out fear (1 John 4:18), including the fear of death. This makes it possible for others who do not know Christ or know him poorly to experience the peace, joy, and love of the Holy Spirit living in us. When, however, the fear of death reigns in our hearts, then the peace, joy, and love of God are blocked, so to speak. We must see that if we are afraid of dying, we cannot effectively teach others implicitly or explicitly to have confidence and peace in God because we lack confidence and peace in God. We must see that if we are afraid of dying, we cannot effectively share with others the joy of living for Christ, an essential aspect of which is living in peace, that is, without the fear of death. We must see that if we are afraid of dying, we cannot teach others to love, because love requires freedom, and whoever is afraid of death is not free in the Lord. So you see, my brothers and sisters in Christ, the choice before us is simple: either we allow the fear of death to stifle the peace, joy, and love of the Holy Spirit, or we allow the Holy Spirit to vanquish the fear of death from our hearts and set us free to live the life God has for us, a life of peace, joy, and love, a life meant to be shared with others.
As we approach Pentecost, let us beg of God to set our hearts free from the fear of death. Let us do so for our own sake, but also for the sake of the Church. My brothers and sisters, we need to be free to share Christ with others. The world is dying in darkness and the light of Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life (St. John 14:6), needs to shine more brightly in us. There is no room for fear, least of all the fear of death.
I would like to suggest just a few ways to overcome the fear of death. Firstly, prayer, for without God, nothing is possible (St. John 15:5). Secondly, the faculty of the imagination is powerful. When death comes to mind, let us think of seeing our Lord and being united with our loved ones. Let us remember that God has promised unbelievable things to those who love Him, things which none can imagine (1 Corinthians 2:9). In truth, when we fear death, we deny the goodness of what God has promised us. Thirdly, let us invoke the heavenly court and ask the Saints and Angels to inspire us with a greater vision of love, the love burning in the Sacred Heart of Christ, a love that transcends death.