Jesus' Last Words as Ars Moriendi
Jesus' life is an example of the Christian life. His death is no different. Willing to submit to the will of his Father, even unto death, Jesus shows us the true cost of following God. But even in death, Jesus provides an example, not only of extreme obedience, but also of how to die.
Ars Moriendi, the art of dying, was a 15th-century book of instructions to assist in dying well. Explaining that the Christian need not fear death, it outlined the five temptations that confront a dying person: lack of faith, despair, impatience, spiritual pride, and avarice. Illustrated with woodcuts, Ars Moriendi showed how to overcome these temptations and achieve a good death. The instruction was particularly relevant in an era when the Bubonic plague was a constant threat.
Jesus' last words on the Cross provide another model of ars moriendi. He reconciles with his persecutors and his neighbors. He takes care of his earthly estate. Jesus acknowledges his spiritual and physical state as a dying man, and he accepts his life's end. Finally, Jesus actively commends his spirit to his Heavenly Father. Though his death was inevitable, Jesus was not passive. He took an active role in his own death.
The Ars Moriendi woodcuts were especially relevant in an age where the plague changed the way Europeans viewed death. In a different way, Americans are undergoing a shift in how they view death. Despite living longer, healthier lives, Americans also experience longer periods of declining health. A recent study found that most deceased elderly "were already sick with their eventually fatal conditions three years before death." Those three years are filled with sometimes grueling medical treatment, but they also afford the opportunitynever before so regularly availableto prepare for death. With the understanding that many people will have this opportunity, we can look to Jesus' seven words from the Cross to learn what it means to prepare for death.
Healthy people often say they want to die suddenly, says Ira Byock, author of Dying Well and director of palliative medicine at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, yet quick deaths leave much uncompleted. They are the most difficult type of death for families to accept. "In contrast to an abrupt, easy death," writes Byock, "dying of a progressive illness offers precious opportunities to complete the most important of life's relationships."
Often relationships cannot be completedwhich Byock defines as having nothing left unsaidwithout forgiveness. From the Cross, Jesus says, "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing." Jesus forgave the very people who mocked and killed him. If we hold grudges or harbor anger, those who work with the dying say, peaceful deaths only come after we offer forgiveness. Forgiving is a Christian duty throughout our lives, but it is an essential part of the work of dying. Seeking forgiveness is equally important. Asking for forgiveness helps complete relationships with friends and family. And knowing that we need forgiveness helps us overcome the temptation of spiritual pride.
When the crucified criminal says, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom!" Jesus offers a remarkable promise. "I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise." This criminal who admits that he deserves death also confesses his belief in Jesus as Messiahovercoming the temptation of lack of faith outlined in the Ars Moriendi woodcuts.
Jesus' promise to his fellow crucified that they would be reunited in paradise is an encouragement to all who face death. Having faith in Christ's work on the Cross offers comfort at a time when thoughts of the life to come are especially relevant.