The Leading Cause of Death

“What’s the leading cause of death?” someone was asked. The answer given was: “Birth!” We are born, knowing that we will die. The baby, who’s birth in Bethlehem we prepare to celebrate, would die a few short years later in Jerusalem. Father Ron Pytel, who received a miracle sparing his life of one disease, would die a few years later of another disease. Does the life and death of this Jesus help us to understand our own lives and deaths? I think it does.

Years ago, the great scripture scholar and teacher, Fr. Ray Brown, S.S., stated in class: “If Jesus had died of a heart attack on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, the Christian religion would be very different.” What an understatement!

In truth, had Jesus lived a ‘normal’ life – building a career, marrying, raising children, praying and tithing at the local synagogue, dying surrounded by children and grandchildren – then our understanding of God would be very different. While such a life would indeed be noble and good, Jesus did no such thing. Instead, Jesus lived a radically ‘self-emptying’ life. Rather than use his energies for himself, he used his energies to heal and comfort the lowly and afflicted. Instead of avoiding evil to ‘play it safe’, he came to confront evil, and free people from its power. Instead of placating the rich and powerful who could destroy him, Jesus challenged the rich and the powerful to change their lives and how they thought of God, a challenge which would indeed result in Jesus being destroyed!

What’s the point in all of this? Jesus came to reveal that life is not about looking out for number one. Life is about looking out for one another. It is not how long we live that matters. It is how well we live.

More profoundly, Jesus came to reveal that, if we dared to live lives of unselfish love, that death would cease to have power over us! Death was not a part of God’s plan. Death entered the world through sin and selfishness. Jesus revealed, that, if we put our faith in him, and lived lives of unselfish love, we would live forever. No matter how short our mortal life, or how tragic our death, we would live forever with God if we just tried to live like God!

A miracle is a suspension of the ordinary laws of nature. The course of a disease is stopped. Symptoms disappear. Jesus worked miracles in his earthly life. Yet, for every leper he cured, there were others not cured. For every dead person he raised, there were many more he did not raise. The miracle was not about God playing favorites. The miracle was always about God using a miracle to point beyond it. The power to cure an illness or to extend life pointed to a greater power to cure every disease and extend life forever. To live forever in perfect joy is the promise for those who trust Jesus and try to live like him.

Fr. Ron Pytel was a couple of years behind me in the seminary. I always knew him as a quiet and sensitive person. As a priest, he revealed great pastoral sensitivity, liturgical insight, and commitment to serving his church by embracing the devotional life of his Polish heritage.

Interestingly, I can still remember kneeling before Fr. Ron nearly 30 years ago to receive his First Priestly Blessing. Now, to be truthful, I can’t remember what I did yesterday! But I still have a clear memory of Fr. Ron putting his hands on my head, bending forward, and praying with such intensity that I could feel this overwhelming warmth. It was almost like he was trying to share the Spirit that he had just received, to pour it into me. When I see the rays of light coming from the heart of Jesus in the image of the Divine Mercy, I sense that I experienced that long ago through Ron. A miracle was not just what Ron received. A miracle of God’s mercy is what Ron was and is.

It is in that light of Divine Mercy, in the light of the Christmas star, that Fr. Ron now lives. Allow me to close with a quote from the great theologian, Karl Rahner: “The great sad mistake of many people… is to imagine that those whom death has taken, leave us. They do not leave us. They remain! Where are they? In darkness? Oh, no! It is we who are in darkness. We do not see them, but they see us. Their eyes, radiant with glory, are fixed upon our eyes. Oh, infinite consolation! Though invisible to us, our dead are not absent…. They are living near us, transfigured…into light, into power, into love.”

by Father Joseph Jenkins
The Leading Cause of Death
Catholic Review, December 10, 2003


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