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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anthony Lilles

The Mystery of Christian Death and the New Birth of Christian Faith

May 6, 2020 This particular post will be a little self-revealing—but its intended for my family, long time friends and, of course, my students through the years. Today is the anniversary of a great grace in my life and in the life of my mother and brothers. 49 years ago John Cyprien Lilles died in the Lord. We may have been but children and my mother a very young widow, and indeed, our world was shattered, yet we were not without hope. For those who are dealing with death, I can witness that in the midst of all the sorrow and difficult aloneness of those days, the Risen One was present to us. I believe that He is present to you too - even as you read these words. He came to us through friends and family but also in the quiet times when we were alone. He spoke to us in prayer. Indeed, though sun and moon had fallen out of the sky, His Word for us has ever remained. The Lord walked with us just as He walked with the disciples on the Road to Emmaus. We did not recognize Him, but our hearts burned with all the tender ways that He spoke to us. It is in the midst of such trials that faith is born and a new life given to us. I suppose that I share this with those of you who have lost loved ones during this time of pandemic. The power of death seems so overwhelming and definitive on a natural level. We feel so cut off and even crushed. Yet the mystery that our faith knows is ever greater. There is a love that is more powerful than death and there is no destructive force in the world that can overcome it. This love is definitively revealed to us by Jesus Christ—who rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, and at the same time, is accomplishing the most beautiful works, not only in our communities, but also presently in our hearts. This is why we worship Him—why men and women through the ages have risked everything to find Him. As John's terminal cancer progressed, his friend Marshall McKinney was at his side. Marshall was a farmer as was my father and his family background was with cattle—so you could say that he was a real cowboy. Together with his wife Judy and my mom, he took eight hour shifts to feed, bath, cloth and accompany John through all that difficult time. At one point, my father said that he saw Jesus. Marshall was in the room and, though he did not believe in God, fell down on his knees. He asked my father what Jesus was saying and my father described a reassuring message. Jesus was inviting him to come home and assured him that his wife and children would be okay. It was not long after this vision that my father passed away. There was a context. John was not always a good Catholic. Bit by Jansenism, he believed his faith but did not believe that frequent communion was a good practice. To his mind, and in the minds of many Franco-Americans, only saints and hypocrites went to daily mass. On his death bed, however, a Holy Ghost Father, Fr. Donal, convinced him to go to confession and communion. He began to wear the scapular of Mt. Carmel. He began to pray. It must have been difficult for him to enter into such a conversion and not be able to share it with his friend Marshall. But that day of the vision, something was indeed shared that stayed with Marshall for the rest of his life. I remembered all of this just after Marshall himself died - some forty years later. I was troubled because he was a good man. It was difficult for me to accept that he might not be saved because he did not believe in God. What a great mystery—where we truly stand before the Lord! We never know whether someone is culpable or not for their rejection of faith. We never know what doubts they had about their own unbelief—their own, "What if's". We never know what happens just at the moment of death—that sacred moment that the soul shares alone with God. I had written a final letter inviting him to consider the faith, and never heard a response. So, after his death, I kept praying for him. I do not have visions or dreams, but sometimes the Lord uses my very active imagination. Once in prayer, in my imagination, I saw the throne of God and a crowd of witnesses surrounding Christ. I could not see Christ—though in my prayer I often search for His holy Face. Instead, though, I noticed two things. One was I saw Marshall approaching this place of judgment. The second, was in the crowd of witnesses, one especially close to the Lord was my father. I realized that to receive the mercy of God, Marshall needed to present himself to the Judge of heaven and earth. Then, I heard the Lord's voice call to him, "Come thou, O Blessed of my Father, when I was hungry, you fed me. When I was thirsty, you gave me to drink. When I was naked, you clothed me. When I was lonely, you visited me." I realized that if Marshall would look up to the voice that called to him, he would see the face of the Lord, the Face of Mercy itself and then also see that crowd of witnesses urging him forward. And if in that crowd, he saw my father, he might find courage to go forward. In their exchange of glances, he would realize that the Lord was personally addressing Himself to him. For what Marshall did for a dying man, he did unto the Lord. Such is the greatness of Christian death. In it, not only is the man and woman of faith being saved as they die in faith, but also those around them are also given a word of hope. I think of all the healthcare workers and ministers of the Gospel who are with the dying even right in this moment, today. As they selflessly put their own lives at risk, they are ministering to Christ Himself through this person that the Lord has entrusted to their care. Such great and mysterious blessings are theirs for their sacrifices and love. It was because of such selflessness that I found an example of what it meant to be Christian from a man who did not know the Lord. I hope before my own death I might at last learn to love like that. As for Marshall, I will not know in this life what he chose when the Lord called Him into His presence, but I know because of his sacrifices, the voice of Mercy called to him and invited him home.

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