Happy death

This year, the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary falls on a Sunday, and so its liturgy takes precedence over that of the 20th Sunday of the Year. This is providential because the gospel reading of today’s feast happily coincides with the theme of the Bread of Life which we have been reflecting on for the past Sundays. “Lord, give us this bread (of life) always,” the people ask Jesus.

In answer, Jesus tells them clearly that to have the Bread of Life is to believe in him as the Word of God and to receive him as the Word made Flesh in the Eucharist.

In the gospel, Mary is greeted by Elizabeth, “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” Because Mary believed in the Word of God spoken by the angel, the Word became incarnate in her; she conceived the Son of God in her womb.

The feast of the Assumption commemorates the day when Mary was taken up to heaven, body and soul, at the end of her earthly life. This is an uninterrupted tradition of the Church since the first century, which was passed on through generations and was finally defined as a dogma (teaching of faith) by Pope Pius XII in 1950. It is theologically founded on the belief that death is a consequence of original sin. And since Mary was exempt from original sin (Immaculate Conception), she was also exempt from death and its attendant effect of bodily corruption.

But more than just a dogma of faith, the Assumption of our Blessed Mother is for us a source of hope and inspiration. Pope Benedict XVI comments, “The Assumption of Mary into Heaven is the Paschal Mystery of Christ completely fulfilled in her. She is intimately united to her Risen Son, the Victor over sin and death, fully conformed to him. But the Assumption is a reality that touches us too, for it points us in a luminous way toward our destiny… In Mary, indeed, we contemplate that reality of glory to which each one of us and the entire Church is called.”

The feast of the Assumption reminds us of our own destiny and glorious end. Although our body will be resurrected and reunited with our soul only on the last day, our death marks our entrance into eternity. Like Mary’s assumption, it is coming home to the Father’s house and a grand reception into God’s family of saints and angels. Hence Christian death cannot but be a happy death.

In Salesian schools, there is a tradition of dedicating half a day each month for what is called an Exercise for a Happy Death. This practice goes back to the time of Don Bosco, who wanted his boys to be prepared to face God any time he would call them – and to face him with eagerness and joy. Don Bosco lived in a time when medicine was still primitive and mortality was high, especially among children. Hence, death was a common daily experience. (With today’s pandemic, we seem to be moving into a similar time zone.)

What is this exercise for a happy death? It consists mainly in putting in order our affairs with God and our fellowmen, our tasks and responsibilities… in a manner that we are ready and happy to render an account of our life to God. Its essential elements are confession (making peace with God), reconciliation (healing fractured relationships with classmates…), restoring order (paying debts, returning borrowed items, cleaning personal lockers…). These activities are complemented by a preached reflection and a special litany for a happy death.

I have found this simple exercise immensely beneficial to me and our students. It fosters an awareness of God’s presence in our life and a desire to be worthy to live in such presence. This is particularly observable in the bosconian’s special love for the sacrament of confession. It happens many times that, when I meet former students in a mall or some public place, our casual encounter would eventually end with a request from them for me to hear their confession. Indeed, there is nothing like being in God’s grace and ready to meet him anytime

The exercise for a happy death ends with a favorite invocation, which every bosconian has learned to pray before sleeping:
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I give you my heart and my soul,
Jesus, Mary and Joseph, assist me in my last agony,
Jesus Mary and Joseph, may I breathe forth my soul in peace with you.”*

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