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Have you ever had “the thought”?

Kate Barrett | Wednesday, March 26, 2008

One of my sons has a recurring problem with what he calls “the thought.” Every so often, usually as he tries to fall asleep at night, “the thought” comes to him and absolutely terrifies him. He comes to find me and knows that all he needs to say is, “I’m having the thought.” And what is it? Simply the understanding, with painful clarity, that someday he will die. This has been happening to him for years; at least for as long as he’s been able to articulate it to me aloud – not too often, thankfully, but about every month or two.

Ironically, this happened most recently on the night of Easter. While I was reading in bed, I could hear him start gasping in his room; and sure enough, he came pounding in a few seconds later and jumped up next to me. I tried to tease him a little: “You’re having the thought on Easter night? This is the day of all days you’re not supposed to be afraid of death!”

Maybe that wasn’t fair – after all, the Gospels tell us again and again that most of Jesus’ disciples (whom he had repeatedly told that he would rise from the dead) were still slow to believe he had risen even when presented with physical evidence or the testimony of angels. Even this week, as we continue to celebrate Easter day, we hear that Mary Magdalene looked right at Jesus, thought he was the gardener, and asked him to return the “stolen” body of the Lord – and this after she had peered into the empty tomb and seen angels sitting in the place of Jesus’ body.

We hear the story of the disciples who walked from Jerusalem to Emmaus with Jesus and didn’t recognize him until he took charge at their dinner table. Those same disciples then jumped up and ran the seven miles back to Jerusalem to tell the others, only to find that they didn’t believe it either. Jesus even arrives on the scene, but they think he’s a ghost until he offers his hands and feet as proof, and lets them watch him eat to show that he’s really alive. Jesus’ closest friends and followers feared death so deeply that they didn’t understand that he had overcome it.

So who am I to think my son shouldn’t have his “thought” on Easter night – at least he’s in good company. What he shares with Jesus’ disciples is not just fear and uncertainty, but more importantly, a belief – even through that fear – in a living, merciful Lord who’s always willing to give us a fresh start, a new beginning. For watch how Jesus responds to all his confused, bewildered, yet beloved friends. He reaches out to them: He shares meals; He walks with them; He offers them his peace; He invites them to touch his hands and his side; He even entrusts them with his mission. “Go into the whole world,” He will say in Saturday’s Gospel, “and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.”

Jesus’ resurrection gives us a new chance, too. He mercifully offers each of us the opportunity, again and again, to say, as we will hear “doubting” Thomas cry this Sunday, “My Lord and my God!” To say, as we will hear Cleopas and the other disciple say after Emmaus, “The Lord has truly been raised!” To say, as we will hear Peter cry out, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you!”

We can’t “beat” death, or somehow conquer the inevitability of its presence in our lives. I can’t reassure my son, “Nothing to worry about, sweets. You’re never going to die.” Rather, we may be able to reduce our fear of death by taking Jesus up on his offers to come to him over and over again for mercy, for understanding, for forgiveness. We may not be able to touch him or watch him eat, but we surely can receive him in the sacraments, tangible and certain signs that bespeak and bring God’s presence into the world. We can also offer mercy as Jesus did, trying to live with an attitude of forgiveness, even when our ability to forgive is tested more than we think we can endure.

In one of the most stunningly beautiful Easter hymns ever written, we sing: “And you most kind and gentle death/Waiting to hush our final breath/O praise him! Alleluia! You lead to heav’n the child of God/Where Christ our Lord the way has trod/O praise him! O praise him! Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!” Perhaps we can take the most comfort in knowing that Christ has trod the way of death before us, and now waits in heaven for each and every child of God.

Kate Barrett is the director of Resources and Special Projects for Campus Ministry. She can be reached at kbarrett@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.