It seems the news lately has been full of death: We’ve lost Hollywood idols like Robin Williams and Joan Rivers, ’60s rock stars like Leslie Gore, politicians like Mario Cuomo. “60 Minutes” host Bob Simon, and 21 Coptic martyrs. The New York Times’ David Carr entered eternity on the same day as Ahmad Givens, star of VH1’s “Real Chance of Love.”.
Every day, souls are propelled off this planet, separated from the twisted bodies which had been their flimsy wrapper for fifty, sixty, ninety years.
Every day, at a rate which is in direct correlation with the birth rate, people die. Despite the skill of plastic surgeons and doctors and the hopeful rhetoric of fitness gurus and hawkers of health foods, death is inevitable. From the day we emerge from our mothers’ wombs, red-faced and screaming, we are en route to that final goodbye, that greatest adventure.
But despite the frequency and the inevitability of the phenomenon, death takes us by surprise. When we read of the latest sad story of drowning or beheading or house fire or pancreatic cancer, we react in stunned disbelief.
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Peter Kreeft, in his 1982 book Between Heaven and Earth, imagined a conversation among three famous individuals who died on the same day—November 22, 1963—and who found themselves together at the gates of heaven. In Kreeft’s book, the newly dead John F. Kennedy, Aldous Huxley, and C.S. Lewis engage in what might be called a modern-day Socratic dialogue. President Kennedy was, in Kreeft’s estimation, a humanistic Christian; Huxley was an Eastern pantheist; and Lewis, a Christian theist. They ask themselves and one another important questions: Does human life have meaning? Who was Jesus? And what does He mean to us today?
We need to ask ourselves these questions, too. So many people seem to plod along, asking themselves only whether they should buy the sportscar or the family van, the cheeseburger or the salad plate. The deeper questions about the Four Last Things (Death, Judgement, Hell and Heaven) are obscured by modernity’s quest for fashion and fun.
Lent is a sober reminder of our destiny. On Ash Wednesday the priest, deacon or layperson marks our foreheads with an ashen cross. “Remember,” he says, “you are dust and to dust you will return.”