Thanksgiving and the paradox of death

George Weigel

The juxtaposition of Thanksgiving with the Church’s annual month of prayer for the dead hadn’t previously struck me with force; that it did this year has something to do, I expect, with my late sister-in-law, Linda Bauer Weigel. Linda died in January after a heroic battle with ovarian cancer – a dreadful diagnosis she received just before Thanksgiving 2019. But she was determined that the rotation of family holiday get-togethers be maintained; it was her turn and my brother John’s to host Thanksgiving dinner; and they did. Linda’s exceptional courage transformed what could have been a grim day into a happy one.          

Linda’s wake and funeral Mass this past January 27-28 may have been one of the last large-scale public events in Calvert County, Maryland, before COVID-19 began shutting things down. The outpouring of affection and esteem from those who had been Linda and John’s friends and neighbors for decades was extraordinary – as were the tributes paid to Linda by her children and her longtime pastor. Everyone involved still misses Linda terribly, even as we pray for her in a special way during this month of remembrance. In that remembering, we also know that, for decades, we were heartened by a woman of valor for whose life we give thanks on this, our first Thanksgiving since her last Thanksgiving. 

A few weeks ago, the Church read a portion of St. Ambrose’s “Treatise on Death as a Blessing” in the Liturgy of the Hours. Precisely because our pastors rarely teach and preach about death these days, the words of that great Milanese bishop and Doctor of the Church bear repeating:

“Death” ….is a passover to be made by all mankind. You must keep facing it with perseverance. It is a passover from corruption, from mortality to immortality, from rough seas to a calm harbor. The word “death” must not trouble us; the blessings that come from a safe journey should bring us joy. What is death but the burial of sin and the resurrection of goodness?

Paradoxical formulas often illuminate important truths that would otherwise go unremarked. That’s surely the case with the paradox that death (as one theologian put it) is the only thing we really have to look forward to. The man who said that was not being droll about the contrast between death’s inevitability and the unpredictability of everything else in life. Rather, like St. Ambrose, he was suggesting that death is a blessing because death is that “passover” at which we can offer back to God the life God had given us as a gift. Doing that consciously is what we mean by a “good death”: being able to say and mean, at the end, “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” That is, I return to you what you have given me, confident that, in doing so, I may “cast off my sins and put on the grace of the just,” as Ambrose continued in his treatise.          

The Psalmist asks, “How can I repay the Lord for his goodness to me?” And after declaring his intention to raise the “cup of salvation” and “call on the Lord’s name,” he notes how “precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his faithful.” Death is precious because it is the moment when we can indeed “repay the Lord” for the blessings of life by offering an entire life to him, to be purified in the fire of divine love so as to be capable of eternal life with the Lord himself.

That many die suddenly and unexpectedly, or not fully conscious of their dying, underscores the wisdom embedded in the paradox that death is the one thing to which we can really look forward. That wisdom teaches us that we should prepare for death daily, perhaps offering our lives to the Lord as the day’s last act. The old children’s prayer – “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” – may strike sophisticates as, well, childish. It is not. In simple words, it expresses confidence in the truth taught by St. Ambrose: that death is a blessing, a passover to a purified, glorified form of life. 

Thanksgiving and November’s remembrance of the dead are well matched. Not in a lugubrious or morbid way, but as a reminder to be grateful, throughout the year, for the possibility of offering our lives back to the God who gave us life.

COMING UP: Five tips for reading the Word of God

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Sunday, Jan. 24 marks “The Sunday of the Word of God,” instituted by Pope Francis last year and to be held every year on the third Sunday of Ordinary Time. This may strike us as odd, as we might think to ourselves, “but isn’t the Bible read at every Sunday Mass?” Certainly so. Not only that, but every daily celebration of the Mass proclaims the Word of God.

What’s different about “The Sunday of the Word of God,” however, is that it’s not just about hearing the Bible read on Sundays. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith notes, it “reminds us, pastors and faithful alike, of the importance and value of Sacred Scripture for the Christian life, as well as the relationship between the word of God and the liturgy: ‘As Christians, we are one people, making our pilgrim way through history, sustained by the Lord, present in our midst, who speaks to us and nourishes us. A day devoted to the Bible should not be seen as a yearly event but rather a year-long event, for we urgently need to grow in our knowledge and love of the Scriptures and of the Risen Lord, who continues to speak his word and to break bread in the community of believers. For this reason, we need to develop a closer relationship with Sacred Scripture; otherwise, our hearts will remain cold and our eyes shut, inflicted as we are by so many forms of blindness.’” This gives us a wonderful opportunity to pause and reflect on the Sacred Scriptures. 

There are two means by which God Divinely reveals truths to us: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. As such, the Bible is not merely a human document, nor simply a collection of amazing stories that call us to do heroic things, or a collection of wise sayings. Rather, the Scriptures are “inspired.” St. Paul has a beautiful teaching about this in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 – “All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.” By “inspired” we mean that God is the principle author of the Bible.

Certainly there were different men who physically wrote the words on the papyrus. Yet these men were influenced by the grace of inspiration to write, not just their own words, but God’s. And so the Scriptures are a mysterious congruence of Divine and human authorship – the human writers capably made full use of language, literary forms, creativity, and writing style to communicate their message, yet they did so under the grace of Divine inspiration. This means that while they wrote in such a way that they had full freedom to write as they wanted, what they wrote was also, “to a tee,” exactly as God wanted written. God is the principle author of the Bible, the human author its secondary writer. Such inspiration is how, despite the various human authors, events, and historical and cultural contexts behind the 73 Biblical texts, we’re still left with only one story since they all have the same one primary author. 

Given that the Bible is the written word of God, I’d like to offer a few “tips” for reading the Bible, since it certainly cannot be read like any other text. 

1. Pray! We must pray before opening the Scriptures for enlightenment from God. We must pray after reading in thanksgiving to God. And we must pray throughout reading in order to encounter God in Scripture and apply it to our life. Of course, the tried and trusted practice of praying the Scriptures is Lectio DivinaThe Ladder of Monks by Guigo II is the ancient resource for Lectio Divina, while a helpful book to get you started is Dr. Tim Gray’s Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina

2. Remember that you are in no rush. The important point is encountering Christ in the Scriptures, not racing through them. Speed reading isn’t reading, after all, much less when applied to the Word of God. It’s not about getting through the Bible, but encountering Christ therein. That may be a few chapters at a time or may actually be only one verse that you pray with. Whatever the case, slow and steady wins the race, as Aesop reminds us. 

3. We have to read the Scriptures regularly, daily if possible. We read in Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Meditating day and night. A good way to start would be to read one Psalm a night as a part of your nightly prayer. Ever better would be praying that one Psalm with your spouse, if married. 

4. Do not worry about starting on page one and reading from cover to cover. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and lost in the text. We all know about Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Moses and the Plagues. But how many understand animal sacrifices in the Book of Leviticus or its purity laws? It’s very easy, starting from page one and flipping straight through, to lose sight of the story of salvation history. Start from page one if you’d like, but don’t feel like you can’t start with whatever book (especially the Gospels) that you find yourself drawn to. 

5. Come take classes with the Denver Catholic Biblical School! In chapter eight of the Book of Acts, we read of an Ethiopian Eunuch reading from the Prophet Isaiah. When the Deacon Philip asks him if he understands what he’s reading, the Eunuch responds, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” This is what we at the Biblical School are here for – to guide you in your encounter with Christ in the Sacred Scriptures. We’re in the middle of our Scripture classes already for this year, but we always start new classes in the fall every September. And in the meantime, we have plenty of things still coming for this year – a class on Catholic Social Teaching that begins on Jan. 27 a lecture series for Lent that starts on March 1, a conference on the Sacred Heart being offered on May 15 and Aug. 28, and a six-week class on St. Joseph in the summer starting in July. We have something for everybody – just reach out to us!