Sermon: The Death Chosen for You (Passion Sunday, March 26th, 2023)
“Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?”
Today is Passion Sunday. The veils over the images in the church starkly remind us that we stand at the doorway of Holy Week, of those sacred days when we will contemplate the Passion and death of the Savior of the world. The chants of the Mass cry out with the voice of those who are suffering: “Give me justice, O God, and plead my cause against a nation that is faithless. From the deceitful and cunning rescue me,” we heard in the entrance antiphon, which sets the theme for each Mass. In the Responsorial Psalm we heard, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD; LORD, hear my voice!” And in the collect prayer at the beginning of Mass we prayed that “we [might] walk eagerly in that same charity with which, out of love for the world [the] Son handed himself over to death.”
The story of the resurrection of Lazarus and Christ’s affirmations that He is the Resurrection and the life, fill our hearts with hope. By His example today, Christ teaches us not only the attitude with which the Christian ought to approach the commemoration of His death (that is, the death of Christ), but what ought to be our attitude towards death more broadly as well.
We read today about Christ’s activity amidst powerful signs of His divinity: the healing of the man born blind we saw last Sunday, and His affirmations of His divinity in the “I am” statements in which He takes the most sacred name of God to Himself. Remember that on Good Friday, His statement of “I am” will cause the high priest to tear his robes, proclaim the Lord a blasphemer, and send Him to Pilate.
And yet, amidst these affirmations of His divinity, He affirms His true humanity as well. Shown the place where Lazarus lies, in the words of the shortest verse of the entire Bible, “And Jesus wept.” He experienced the sadness of the loss of His friend, the one He loved. (“Master, the one you love is ill,” they tell Him as they summon Him to Bethany.) Christ weeps, though, not only for love of His friend Lazarus, but also as a sign that death is gravely wrong, an evil to be overcome.
His sorrow is a scandal to those who observe Him: “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?” He has revealed Himself as possessed of a great power. The Jews have recognized that the healing of the blind man was not done by a typical miracle-worker. Last Sunday, we heard that the blindness of that man was “so that the works of God might be made visible through him.” But having demonstrated Himself as the Lord of the Sabbath, He makes an even stronger claim, that the illness of Lazareth “is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” For this reason, He can emphasize to the disciples, “Lazarus has died. And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe. Let us go to him.” He not only works miracles for God’s glory, but so that He might be glorified as the Son of God.
Some friend, many might say. What friend would allow his friend to suffer needlessly when He had the power to save him? But Christ has a very different attitude towards suffering, and even towards death. He Himself does not flee from suffering nor even death. Last Sunday we read from John chapter 9, and today from John chapter 11. In Chapter 10, the Jews confront Christ in the Temple and take up rocks to stone Him, but slips out of their midst, crossing the Jordan river to safety. Thus, the words “Let us go back to Judea” today are full of weight and premonition. The disciples are right to be concerned: “Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you, and you want to go back there?”
The Lord does not tarry out of fear of death, but to reveal the greatness of the Father’s works in Him. His resolution inspires great faith in His disciples as well. What could be more moving than the words of Thomas, called Didymus, who gives his fellow disciples the ultimate encouragement: “Let us also go to die with him.”
There are many ways that each one of us flies each day from this beautiful and challenging invitation to go to Judea to die with the Lord. I can think of none, though, that more perfectly accomplishes this flight from willingness to suffer with the Lord than the increasing fervor for the legalization of euthanasia. The advocates of this grave perversion of the venerable medical arts have re-branded it, “Medical aid in dying” or “medically assisted dying.” This is obviously a cover-up. It is good to medically assist those who are dying, to alleviate suffering with modern medicine. But to kill innocent people or to encourage the dying to despair is a great evil.
In 2002, the Netherlands and Belgium became the first countries in the world to legalize euthanasia, the culmination of a decriminalization process starting in the 1970s. Advocates of euthanasia started out by claiming that these provisions would be used in only the most extreme cases – terminally ill patients at the very end of their lives experiencing irremediable suffering. And yet, unsurprisingly, both who is eligible and for which reasons have been drastically expanded over the past twenty years in every jurisdiction that has legalized this diabolical practice.
First, a terminal diagnosis is now rarely required. Anyone who claims to be experiencing intolerable pain is considered eligible. This has even been extended to those experiencing mental illness in the Netherlands and Belgium. Canada plans to allow this starting next year.
Law has a tutoring effect on society. When practices are legalized, public opinion almost always shifts. This is what happened in the case of the legalization of abortion in 1973, and of same-sex marriage starting in Massachusetts in 2004. As more and more states in the US legalize physician-assisted suicide, public opinion across the country is swinging in favor of it as people gradually see it as more and more normal.
Further, as soon as physician assisted suicide is legalized, usually along carefully compromised terms, its proponents immediately begin advocating for the loosening of the same restrictions that they just claimed would satisfying opponents’ concerns regarding potential abuses. Only two years after legalizing euthanasia, the Dutch legal system agreed not to prosecute doctors who euthanize infants less than one-year-old. Twelve years after legalization, in 2014, Belgium allowed euthanasia for children 1-12 years old. In Canada, in 2019, a man was euthanized whose only illness was listed as “hearing loss,” and the Quebec College of Physicians now supports child euthanasia. Combine child euthanasia, even without parental consent, with euthanasia for mental illness – including common ones like depression and anxiety – and you have something very scary.
Even the very arguments against legalization immediately became arguments for eliminating restrictions. Early proponents agreed to a terminal diagnosis requirement. Opponents argued that it is very difficult for physicians to give accurate prognoses. Then, after legalization, this difficulty became an argument in favor of eliminating the terminal diagnosis requirement. These are truly the “deceitful and cunning” from whom we begged deliverance in the entrance antiphon of today’s Mass.
In Oregon, the first state in the US to legalize physician-assisted suicide, all prescriptions are written by two to three per cent of the state’s physicians, and the average length of physician-patient relationship before the prescription is three months. In Washington, DC, following their legalization, only two out of eleven thousand doctors registered to prescribe. Yes, you heard that correctly: two out of eleven thousand. Most doctors know that this is very, very wrong, even though they are given complete immunity from prosecution in these cases. Advocates of legalization have also covered up their trails by excluding records of lethal prescriptions from legal discovery and stipulating that they be destroyed every year.
It is no surprise at all that in the past three years, we have seen a marked increase in interest in the legalization of euthanasia and physician assisted suicide. The transformation of language to support cultural agendas has, despite the lack of legality in the great majority of the United States, succeeded in changing the acceptable term for physician-assisted suicide to medically assisted dying. Our mania for preventing illness and death at all costs finds its roots in the unacceptability of suffering. This leads to the ironic proposition of killing as the solution to suffering and death – precisely the twisted logic of those who do the works of darkness.
Rather than the world’s proposition of death as the solution to suffering, Christ encourages us today to see suffering as the opening of a path to new life. Death is an evil to overcome, but He will overcome it, and He has overcome it. There are many good arguments against euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, such as the availability of good hospice care and the dignity and value of the lives of those who are sick, the elderly, and the disabled. But none is more important than this: Christ invites us into the mystery of suffering. He invites us to embrace the Cross. He weeps before the reality of death, but not as one who suffers in vain.
How different, then, is the attitude towards death evinced by the world’s rejection of suffering from that expressed in the traditional Stations of the Cross? As we contemplate Christ’s death, we pray: “My dying Jesus, I devoutly kiss the cross on which You would die for love of me. I deserve, because of my sins, to die a terrible death; but Your death is my hope.” And as Simon of Cyrene takes up the Lord’s Cross, we pray: “My beloved Jesus, I will not refuse the cross … I accept it and embrace it. I accept in particular the death that is destined for me with all the pains that may accompany it. I unite it to Your death and I offer it to You. You have died for love of me; I will die for love of You.”
Today we join the Lord’s cry, expressed in the forty second Psalm: “Give me justice, O God, and plead [the] cause [of all those who suffer and confront the reality of death] against a nation that is faithless,” against a world that proposes despair instead of the hope brought by the love of Christ, and we take comfort in His promise to His chosen people: “I will put my spirit in you that you may live, … thus you shall know that I am the LORD. I have promised, and I will do it, says the LORD.”
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist
Passion Sunday, A.D. MMXXIII
For more information on physician assisted suicide and euthanasia, see this lecture from Dr. Joseph Marine, physician and professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University:
Dr. Marine’s slides: