Blessed is Sister Death?

“Andy was a person of incredibly strong Christian faith and was prepared for the day he would be called Home to his Lord. I cannot imagine life without Andy, but I take comfort and strength in God’s grace and in the knowledge that Andy is at peace and with God.” — Cindi Griffith, in a statement on Tuesday. Actor and singer Andy Griffith died Tuesday morning at age 86.

————————————–

In 2004 I picked up a CD by the songwriter/singer/monk John Michael Talbot called “Songs for Worship, Volumes I & II.” I had been introduced to Father Talbot’s music a year earlier when I bought a quick sampler CD at Lifeway for a few bucks. I knew that he was friends with Michael Card, one of my favorite artists, so I gave him a listen and fell instantly in love with Talbot’s worshipful, scriptural and saintly prayer songs. On the “Songs for Worship” CD there is a song called “Our Blessing Cup.” Being a Catholic Father and theologian, I naturally assumed that this “blessing cup” was referring to the Eucharist (communion) — the centerpiece of the Catholic Mass. Curious as any Protestant might be, I listened intently to the words of the song so I might in some small way begin to understand the Catholic mindset. The beautiful and mellow song began,

“Our blessing cup is a communion with the blood of the Lamb…”

I understood that part. Even in Protestant churches the cup of wine/grape juice is a connection with the blood of Jesus Christ. While every denomination has different teachings on what that specific connection is, it is a connection nonetheless. The second verse began:

“How precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of His children. You’re servant am I, Your handmaid’s son, and You have loosed my bonds.”

I paused. What? How can death be called “precious?” Death is evil, wretched, hurtful and even worse! How can death be even remotely considered “good?” I was dumbfounded. Do Catholics believe death is to be longed for, to be sought, to be celebrated? I just didn’t get the connection between death and joy. But about a year after I first heard the song I was reading Psalm 116 and came across this verse:

“Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints (v. 15).”

As I read the whole psalm I realized that the song “Our Blessing Cup” was based on this psalm. But the simple sentence above still confused my emotions. Really? God considers death to be “precious?” If He does, then I guess I should, too, though it flips upside down my instinct to be mad and depressed. The Hebrew word translated “precious” in all major translations of 116:15 is “yaqar” which literally means “valuable and of quality; pertaining to objects that are rare, beloved, or splendid.” Ah, so the Lord considers the object to be precious, the person in this case, and that makes their death to be “valuable or of quality.” Death is serious. It is the price mankind paid for disobeying God in the Garden of Eden. In Christ, it is judged and one day will be no more. But until that Day, it is with us. And all will suffer its effect unless the Lord chooses to make an exception (like the rapture). But when a believer dies the Lord takes it seriously and joyously welcomes him or her into His heavenly Kingdom.

Last year I bought another Talbot album, “Troubadour of the Great King” — a masterpiece that is 30 years old now. Father Talbot, I had learned, was a Franciscan monk and spiritual leader of a Franciscan community in Arkansas. He has written books on St. Francis of Assisi, one of the most influential saints in church history and several songs, one of which was based on “The Canticle of the Sun,” a famous poem written by Francis. When I heard this song I had to check out the canticle (poem). In that poem, Francis famously added this phrase when he was on his deathbed:

“Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whose embrace no living person can escape (AD 1225).”

How can death bring God praise? Well, for Christians death leads us straight into the Father’s presence. It also ends earthly suffering. So we can praise God that our loved one is not suffering any more and is in God’s presence. Praise between tears, of course, because death is still sad. I wouldn’t go so far as Francis in calling death a sister as much as I would point to death as being a blessed transition from a fleshly life on earth to an eternal life in heaven. An agent of God, of sorts. For those who die in Christ, death is not the end. It is merely a departure (see 2 Tim 4:6). The soul lives on, transported into the spiritual realm. As another saint, Paul, wrote: “to be absent from the body” is “to be with the Lord (2 Cor 5:8).” And this is the hope that all who believe in Jesus Christ cling to firmer than perhaps any other hope.

— “Brother” John

By the way, I’ve mentioned this before but two of the best albums dealing with the subject of death and the Christian are “The Far Country” by Andrew Peterson and Burlap to Cashmere’s brand new album. Both artists deal with the subject of death from a biblical worldview and see the hope of heaven in the departure from earth. You might be surprised how both of these albums uplift and encourage the Christian while dealing with what might normally be a difficult subject.