by The Rev. Mary Earle
photo by Dexter Lesieur
Recently I had the tender privilege of accompanying a dear friend through almost five years of cancer treatment, then her decision to enter hospice and prepare for her death. She was an Episcopalian, someone whose parish life had been marked by weekly communion and the liturgical seasons.
For years, her life had been intimately woven with the celebrations of Eucharist during Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and ordinary time. She had a keen awareness of the presence of the Risen Christ in and through all circumstances, at all times, rejoicing with us, and hallowing our dyings.
As with many of us, her time with cancer was challenging, to say the least. She suffered an astounding number of treatments, surgeries, and experimental protocols. From her depths, she was given the vitality to keep living, to savor her life, and to reach out to others. Over and over, despite the indignities that treatment visited upon her, she said, with our Jewish brothers and sisters, “L’chaim! To life!”
And so, when it became apparent that the time had come for her to ease into hospice, she was aided in that decision by her parish. She was able to reconcile with her mortality.
We are encouraged by scripture and by our Book of Common Prayer (BCP) to take our mortality seriously, but also to hold it lightly. Psalm 90:12 offers this line: “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” Our Book of Common Prayer gives us this wisdom: “Make us, we pray, deeply aware of the shortness and uncertainty of human life; and let your Holy Spirit lead us in holiness and righteousness all our days…” (p. 504).
I could go on and on, citing the wisdom offered to us with regard to our numbered days.
And yet, we live in a frenzied, shallow culture that is completely afraid of the fact of our dying. Advertising, online posts and no small number of magazine covers encourage us to carry unconscious assumptions that we will live forever and that illness and aging are signs that we have done something wrong.
It takes a community to counter this. A living, breathing, worshipping, singing, stepping out community. It takes the Body of Christ, enlivened by his own undying life and light, to sober us up and draw us away from the manipulations of mass media and superficial culture.
And so, when my dear friend accepted the fact that her body could no longer sustain treatment, and that she was being beckoned by Christ into a place of readiness, it was her community and her family that helped her be reconciled to her mortality. When she entered hospice, time shifted. No more urgent calls to the doctor. No more going to appointments. No more of the harsh demands of dealing with trying to keep going. Surrounded by family, she turned toward Home.
Her priests attended to her with care and kindness. Lay Eucharistic ministers brought communion for her and her family. Visitors came, when it was appropriate, to tell her stories and reflect on their time together as members of their lively community of faith and the happy remembrances of creating Advent wreaths and costumes for the Epiphany pageant. Her generosity was celebrated. Her kindness was remembered. And in all of this, the life of her community came to her house.
The gracious, abundant, overflowing sacramental life of the Body of Christ flowed from the altar, to her home, sloshing grace in the midst of sadness, gathering up familial memories and hallowing them with hymns sung together.
One of our highest callings as Christian communities of the sacramental, Episcopal type is to enter into this kind of reconciling process. All of us are heading Home at some point. All of us will be “received into the arms of mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light” (BCP p. 465).
When we are invited into the final days of another person, we are called to live out our baptismal vows, right there, in the midst of the dying. We seek and serve Christ, right there by the death bed. We respect the dignity of every human person, right there, as goodbyes are said and grief comes in tidal rushes. We proclaim the resurrection — not in any sappy, shallow way — but by offering the witness of the faith we have received, the faith that looks upon death with tender hope.
This is the faith of those early Christians: Christ has risen from the dead, trampling down death by death. And we who are the members of his Body, right here, right now, don’t offer our own fragile conjecture. We, as those who are heartened and fed and nourished and made new by every communion, stand with the community of saints and say, “Alleluia! Even at the grave we sing our song.”
For your own reflection:
Examine your thoughts about your own death or the death of someone you love. Do they proclaim resurrection?
How does your community support those who are nearing physical death? How might it?
Read the burial office in The Book of Common Prayer, pg 491.
The Rev. Mary Earle is a retired priest, author, and retreat leader. Her latest book is Marvelously Made: Gratefulness and the Body, available from Church Publishing, and from Amazon. Reach Mary at