Question:

Danse Macabre, a reminder of the universality of death. Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Vilnius

I have noticed quite a number of artworks depicting death in some Catholic Churches, isn’t this a bad thing?

Answer:

As Christians we acknowledge a number of things about death:

Death is Universal:

Death is part of life, at least now it is. It was never part of the plan of God but since the Fall of Man, death has become the doorway through which everyone passes to the next life. There are two kinds of death though: the physical death which is a natural part of life and spiritual death which is eternal damnation. We are discussing physical death since this is what those sculptures represent. St Augustine, speaking on the universality of death says:

For no sooner do we begin to live in this dying body, than we begin to move ceaselessly towards death. For in the whole course of this life (if life we must call it) its mutability tends towards death. Certainly there is no one who is not nearer it this year than last year, and tomorrow than today, and today than yesterday, and a short while hence than now, and now than a short while ago. For whatever time we live is deducted from our whole term of life, and that which remains is daily becoming less and less; so that our whole life is nothing but a race towards death, in which no one is allowed to stand still for a little space, or to go somewhat more slowly, but all are driven forwards with an impartial movement, and with equal rapidity.

Death isn’t scary, not anymore:

Do you know what shocked many onlookers during the persecution of Christians in the Early Church? The fearlessness in the eyes of these Saints at the face of death, and something of glee even. Some martyrs have been said to sing while burning, others to even make special outfits for the “occasion” like St. Margaret Clitherow. Yet others have been known to crack jokes on their way to death like St John Fisher. Why? because :

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55)

Death is no longer scary, death has lost its pain because to believers death has become a “sister”, a “helper”, a “deliverer”. St John of the Cross in his poem says:

Break the web of this sweet encounter.

Pleading with God to set the soul free to join God in heaven. Also, St Francis referring to death as “Sister” wrote:

All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Death,From whose embrace no mortal can escape.Woe to those who die in mortal sin!Happy those she finds doing your will!The second death can do them no harm.Praise and bless my Lord, and give him thanks. And serve him with great humility.

 

A depiction of death in the Parish Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo by Giovanni Battista Gisleni.

All thanks to Jesus who conquered death and removed the power it had over believers because no matter how painful it is, the spirit of the believer is in the hands of God. Christ guarantees resurrection to the believer, he promises he will not only walk with us in life but in the journey of death.

 

Death isn’t a bad thing, not anymore:

Also following from what we already said, death isn’t a bad thing anymore since it has become the door to heaven. The death of Jesus conquered evil, in all its forms and shades. What this means is, suffering can now be a source of grace to people of faith. That sicknesses, pains and many other natural evils have been made a source of God’s grace to those who have faith. Death, the chief of them all is become, in a sense, the very gate of heaven to the believer.

When Jesus was killed, the world committed unspeakable evil because it killed an innocent man, the Son of God. But more because we took Goodness personified and killed him. We literally murdered our own Creator. What else could be more evil than that? However, God who specializes in bringing out good from evil brought out the greatest good from this most horrible act.

Conclusion:

When you visit any Church with death depictions, let them remind you of the things stated above, but most of all let them remind you that you will die someday. Like St Ambrose who was said to have kept a skull on his desk to help him remember, those are there to do the same for you.

Death has been conquered, and Christ has given the merits of his passion to the Church. Take advantage of these by receiving the Sacraments frequently especially Penance and the Eucharist.

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