Text: John 12:1-8 (anointed for burial)
Dying people often need help — physical care from health professionals; loving contact with family in the face of fear or pain; opportunities to deal with unfinished business; and a chance to say goodbye.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus gets help in his dying process. His journey from Galilee to Jerusalem is almost over. He is staying with his friend Lazarus on the outskirts of the city. It is six days before Passover, the day on which the Gospel of John says Jesus is executed.
At a banquet in his honour, Mary, one of the sisters of Lazarus, anoints Jesus with expensive oil. This makes Judas angry. But Jesus rebukes him. Jesus says that Mary is preparing him for his burial. Jesus knows that he will be killed soon after they enter Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, something that he had first told his friends at the start of their journey.
Every Lent, the church invites us to be part of this journey. Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him. He assures us that there is new life on the other side of the cross. But it is still death toward which we journey – both the death of Jesus and our own death.
This year during Lent, the news media have been filled with discussions on physician-assisted dying. The Supreme Court of Canada has given the federal government until June to craft a law that will legalize assisted dying in cases of unrelenting pain and incurable sickness. Quebec has had such a law in place since January. And on February 29, a Calgary woman died with the help of physicians after getting a judicial exemption from the old law.
I am disappointed that many church leaders are opposed to physician-assisted dying. The church considers life to be sacred, of course. But clinging to life is hardly the way shown to us by Jesus.
Jesus repeatedly says that those who try to save their lives will lose them while those who lose their lives for the sake of the good news will save them. To me, this is the opposite of the idea that we must preserve our lives under all circumstances.
Many of us have concerns about assisted dying. Should the pain of mental as well as physical illness be grounds for seeking assistance in dying? What age restrictions, if any, should be in place? Will some people feel pressured to end their lives prematurely because of the demands of family members or worries about health care costs? Shouldn’t the government pour more resources into palliative care?
In thinking about these questions, I am cheered that Canada is not the first jurisdiction to allow doctor-assisted dying. Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Washington State and Oregon all have forms of doctor-assisted dying. I am glad that Canada will soon join this list.
A few years ago, I read an article in a Palliative Care journal that began with the following statement: “Despite many recent medical advances, experts say that 100% of Canadians will still die.”
The good news of Christ is that new life rises from death. We can experience this truth in moments of personal crisis where, with Grace, we are reborn into a life that moves us beyond ego and closer to Love. We are also confident that there is new life after the biological death of our bodies.
Born-again life this side of the grave gives us a taste of what life in the Spirit might be like after death. It is about rising above our small selves and merging into the wide ocean of God’s Love.
This rebirth involves the death of our addictions and fears, which can be painful. But the result is a life of greater freedom and joy.
Biological death is similar, I believe. Entering into God’s eternity after death contains the promise of complete liberation. Unfortunately, the process of dying can be quite difficult and painful.
I believe that doctor-assisted dying will help. When the option to get assistance in controlling pain even to the point of death is available, I imagine that I may be able approach the end of my life’s journey with less anxiety.
Life is sacred and eternal, but our egos are not. Love survives the deaths of our addictions and illusions this side of the grave, and it will survive our biological deaths. Thankfully, our egos — with all their grasping fears — will not.
In the crises of our lives, we often need help to die to an old way of life and rise to one that is closer to God. At the end of our biological life, I pray that similar help will be available to us.
For some of us, this may involve medical assistance in ending our life. As a pilgrim on the Way of the Cross, I see nothing in assisted dying that is inherently sinful. Instead, I see it as another way to care for a loved one in a time of utmost need.
Near the end of his life’s journey, Jesus got help from his friend Mary. Unlike most of his friends, she acknowledged that his end was near. Further, she understood the importance and difficulty of his impending death.
When we near the end of our life’s journey, I pray that we will remember the example of Jesus and feel the presence of his Spirit within and around us.
Jesus did not cling to biological life. Quite the opposite: he gave his life away in loving abandon. He also showed how we could gain new life by losing the small life of the ego – both before death and at the end of our journey on earth.
The path of Lent helps us to remember this gracious story. It is a path that embraces death despite its pain and fear. It is a journey that ends in the joy of Easter.
And for this I say again, “Thanks be to God.”