While MrsDarwin has been holding down the fort back in Texas all week, I've been out here in Los Angeles where my father is in the very last stages of non-hodgekins lymphoma.
Perhaps because of all the advances in medical science over the last few centuries, when we as Christians think about "life issues" we're mostly thinking about keeping people from prematurely ending life: others or their own. Too many people in our modern society believe that life is a wholly owned and operated commodity -- that they can avoid creating it when convenient, demand it when wanted, preserve it as long as they wish, and dispose of it when tiresome.
Nonetheless, life is a condition with a 100% mortality rate. We all die sometime, and there is another set of "life issues" on which Christians have traditionally focused: those relating towards making a "good death."
Our post-Christian world still has lots of left over Christian hope regarding death -- without the fears that have traditionally gone with it. Our secular world has reduced the four last things to two, death and heaven, as polls consistently find that more people believe in heaven than believe in God.
Our modern pagans are a tougher nut to crack than the old variety. When the good news of Christianity first spread across the world, the Christian message of life after death, of eternal reward for the justice and life everlasting through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ was a new and welcome idea. Pagan beliefs were much less hopeful. In Homer, as cold bronze spills smoking blood upon the sands, the dead man's soul "goes wailing into the outer darkness."
The pagan world endorsed the same kind of mercy killing that is coming back into vogue today, but with none of the pat confidence that the dead were going to "a better place".
Confronting the culture of death, we most often focus on the moral commandment that we not bring life to a premature conclusion. Yet the other side of the Catholic tradition in regards to death is one of acceptance, even welcoming. We do not hasten death, yet in the hope of eternal life we do not fear it. Indeed, in the hope of the beatific vision, we yearn for it. And while we accept God's will by not hastening "the day or the hour" we also await it -- hard as that waiting may be, as pain and weakness enfold the dying Christian with over-tight embrace -- and yearn for it.
We seldom speak of death in the happy-sappy mass of the American suburbs. (It's so much easier to pat ourselves on the back about loving others and overcoming racial insensitivity.) Yet the traditional prayers of the Church are full of petitions for a good death and life everlasting. Ten times each decade of the rosary, we ask that the Mother of God pray for us "not and at the hour of our death."
Compline, the last hour of the liturgical day, is especially filled with meditations on death. "May God grant us a restful night and a peaceful death" is one of the prayers. "Protect us, Lord, while we are awake, and safe guard us while we sleep, that keep watch with Christ and rest in peace."
Most on my mind of late, sitting by the hospital bed that now dominates my parents' living room, is the Canticle of Simeon, said near the end of the ordinary of Compline:
Now, Lord, you may dismiss your servant
in peace, according to your word;
For my eyes have seen your salvation;
which you have set before all the nations,
As a light of revelation for the Gentiles
and the glory of your people Israel.