By FR. ROLANDO V. DE LA ROSA, O.P.
Yesterday was All Souls’ Day. When I was ten years old, going to class was an ordeal because I had to pass by the gate of a cemetery with a sign that says: “Today is my hour, tomorrow is yours!”At such a young age, I already feared death, which is something most of us never learn to outgrow.
Why are we afraid of death? Why do we hang on to life with an avidity that even a lingering sickness, prolonged senility or dementia, or a painful sense of uselessness, cannot dissipate?
For many people, death is fearful because of the finality it brings with it. We love second chances. For others, death means the ultimate judgment about heaven or hell. For those who do not believe in the afterlife, death is fearful not so much because of an impending punishment, but because of the prospect of separation from a loved one. Still for others, the fear of death is the fear of not being remembered.
But in our world where violence and murder continually escalate, we have somehow learned to hide our fear of death by defensive strategies — through funeral parlors that prettify corpses, memorial parks that assure us that the dead have not really left us but are merely out-of-sight, the beauty cult that extols youth and despises aging, movies that trivialize death by bombarding us with its gory and graphic details, and the mass media that calms our fear by selling us fantasies that numb us from the terror of dying.
Our Lord Jesus Christ has shown us a way to overcome the fear of death. After all, He came not only to teach us how to live, but also how to die. But it is a lesson we have to learn ourselves because even if Jesus died for us, He did not die our own deaths. By accepting His vulnerability, by being resigned to the finiteness of human existence, Jesus exposed what lies beneath our fear of dying: our excessive desire to control everything, to be invincible, to be exempt from the relentless and irreversible passage of time.
Death is painful because of our inability to admit that earthly life has a boundary. This denial hinders us from living our life to the full. If we accept that our life on earth is limited, death poses a constant reminder never to let every moment pass by unused. There is wisdom in making NOW the important decisions that we always postpone for tomorrow.
In our gospel reading today, Zacchaeus does precisely that. He does not waste the singular opportunity given him by Jesus. He decides to change even if he knows that this will involve a kind of dying. He has to let go of a former way of life that no longer works. Yes, he lives comfortably with his amassed wealth. But deep inside he is hurting because he knows he is a moral midget. Perhaps this explains the description of Zacchaeus as “short in stature.” He does not measure up morally.
So, when the opportunity to change was offered, Zacchaeus seizes it. To prove his sincerity, he declares that he shall restore what he has stolen or defrauded, and he shall make restitution for any injustice he has committed. At that instance, the corrupt Zacchaeus dies and the new person is born. He can rightfully say: “I am never the same again.”
The story of Zacchaeus allowed me to see differently the cemetery sign I once dreaded. “Today is my hour, tomorrow is yours” is no longer just a warning about the certainty of death, but also a reminder about the inevitability of change, that every moment can be a moment of grace, a God-given chance to let the old self die and be reborn anew.
The words of Jesus always resound: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). Of we take that seriously, we shall realize that life, not death, comes without warning.