FROM THE PASTOR’S DESK
The words of today’s gospel are a beautiful description of eternal life. It is a gospel that I usually proclaim at every funeral Mass. Jesus promises us that we will dwell with him forever in our father’s house. So, who would not want to live there? There is only one problem. We have to die to get there. And death is something that you and I wish to avoid thinking about. We live our lives from day to day, always believing that another day will follow. When someone we know dies, we shake our head acknowledging the loss, but then go on with living forgetting that death, in its own time, will come for us as well. We tend to deny our own death. But this is of no benefit to us. In fact, there is an advantage to recognizing and acknowledging our own mortality.
Jeff Piehler was a retired thoracic surgeon who was diagnosed with stage-four prostate cancer. Death for Jeff was very much on the horizon. But instead of trying to deny his condition, Jeff looked for a way to acknowledge it. He decided that he wanted to make his own coffin. So, he worked with a carpenter artist and together they formed a stunningly simple and elegant pine box. Jeff’s family was uncomfortable with his project. They saw it as a way of him giving up on life. But Jeff insisted that the exact opposite was true. Far from fixating on his death, his project led him to live his life more deeply than he ever had before. For example, it was literally impossible for him to become upset and angry with the person ahead of him on the freeway who was driving too slowly after having just come from sanding the lid on his coffin. Other things changed as well. Coveting material things, bearing old grudges, worrying about what people thought about him, all revealed themselves as an ultimate waste of time.
His coffin was indeed a reminder of the fate that awaits us all. But its deepest meaning was to live every minute of life to its fullest potential. Jesus’ words in today’s gospel should be interpreted in this context. Jesus points to our own death not to depress us, but to reveal the value of every moment we live. Jesus promises us eternal joy, not as an escape from this present life, but so that we might live our life more deeply. When we live life aware of the limited time that we have, we take fewer and fewer things for granted. We take time to celebrate every life-giving relationship, to savor every act of love, to rejoice in every chance meeting, to enjoy every small blessing that life bestows. That is why Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Because he understands that when we acknowledge our own mortality, we live life more deeply, and when we live life more deeply, we are no longer afraid of dying. The more we can live our lives in thankfulness and joy, the less power death has over us.
Jeff Piehler understood this truth. On the inside lid of his coffin, just above the place where his head would lie, he carved his favorite verse of poetry. It reads, “I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”
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