The truth, reality, gift, and desire of shalom make up a thread running through all of Scripture, throughout our whole Christian faith life, through the Mass, and through all of the sacraments.
As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram; and lo, a dread and great darkness fell upon him. Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know of a surety that your descendants will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation which they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. … ” On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram. (Gn 15:12-15, 18a)
“You shall go to your fathers in peace” (Gn 15:15). 1 How many times have we said or heard at a funeral or wake, “she looks so peaceful,” “now finally he is at peace.” These sentiments point us to a truth of our shared faith as Christians, and to the roots of the faith shared with our Jewish brothers and sisters. We might rightly call this truth the peace of a good and holy death, or in Old Testament language, the shalom 2 of a good death. Such peace we believe is a gift from the one good giver—our God and Father, merciful and almighty. What is this shalom? Where do we as Christians find the shalom of a good death in eternal life with God?
Shalom is rightly understood as “peace,” but this simple noun barely hints at the depth, power, and beauty of this biblical concept. (The Hebrew shalom and the Greek eirene are mentioned almost 700 times in the entire Bible. For simplicity’s sake, I will use the single term “shalom” but intend that to represent the Hebrew shalom and its variants, as well as the Greek eirene and its variants). Throughout Scripture, shalom is variously described as concord between peoples; seeking the good of a country or even a city; praying for the welfare of other people; physical safety; a good death; material prosperity; and spiritual well-being. 3 Shalom is associated with love, justice, truth, wholeness, and rightness. 4 Shalom is not merely the absence of conflict, but it is positively characterized in Scripture by such things as good relations between neighbors, as well as between enemies, freedom of worship, abundance, prosperity, and security among all peoples. For the Christian, shalom is seen as a gift of God and a fruit of the Holy Spirit, but also something for which we must work.
The truth, reality, gift, and desire of shalom make up a thread running through all of Scripture, throughout our whole Christian faith life, through the Mass, and through all of the sacraments. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI points out that one of the names used by the early Church for the Eucharist—the Bread which we receive at Mass—was pax, which means peace. 5
Turning to the Word, to the truth of Scripture, and to the Sacraments, we can see, hear, and experience good news about the shalom of a holy death; good news that can help us in our daily walk together as Christians. We can also turn to the example of St. Joseph, and of our fathers in faith, like Abraham, to draw inspiration, sustenance, and strength.
As Christians, it is right and good to pray for the grace and shalom of a good death, for others, and for ourselves. We do well also to ask St. Joseph, patron saint of a good death, to pray for us and to pray for our loved ones, that we, and they, might have the gift of shalom in, and from, a good death.
Where do Christians see the shalom of a holy and good death? First, in the gift of reconciliation: the shalom of forgiveness at the end of life. Second, in the gift of eternal life: unending shalom with God and with his covenant family.
The Gift of Reconciliation: ”Shalom” With One Another
First, we will consider the gift of reconciliation, forgiveness, and shalom found in a holy death. Especially, let us consider it as the reality of death approaches, or more accurately, perhaps, as we think it to be more closely approaching, we are called as Christians to seek, and to offer, the shalom of reconciliation with, and to, one another. Anyone who has ever been present at the bedside of a dying person can likely attest to this.
So often, we know that what weighs heavily on the hearts and minds of those who are ill or dying is sorrow for separation caused by sin. The burden of unforgiven enmity cannot safely be ignored: our brother has something against us, we are holding on to something against our sister. 6 This truly is a darkness. In Genesis 15, we read that “a dread and great darkness fell upon (Abram).” 7 We all know, or have seen and, perhaps, even have felt ourselves, the fear of death, the darkness of isolation, the dread of unforgiven sin against another, and the emptiness of separation. In these times, dying persons especially must know, deep in their hearts and souls: now is likely my last chance, now is the time, I must work this out, I must accept God’s gift of the shalom of forgiveness before it is too late.
Sadly, though, the darkness of sin can leave dying persons so broken that they cannot bring themselves to give or to receive forgiveness. As well, the power of sin can make us so fearful that we cannot accept the gift of forgiveness for someone who has deeply hurt us, even if that person is now dying. This is truly the “dread and great darkness” 8 of sin.
In this darkness, however, we must still try to see the possibility of good. In the darkness, the Lord still spoke to Abram, and Abram heard. As disciples, the Lord calls us, the Lord enables us, to give the gift of true shalom to a dying person: through our offer of forgiveness and reconciliation, and through our acceptance of a dying person’s forgiveness of us. This is truly a Christ-like gift. Blessed by God’s forgiveness, we are made able to share his forgiveness and blessing: “On that day, the Lord made a covenant with Abram.” 9 God welcomed Abram, and welcomes us, into his covenant and into the community of his covenant which is the Church—the place where we can truly receive and give the shalom of forgiveness.
As Catholics, we also recognize the absolute importance of preparation for death, of preparation to receive the gift of shalom in a good death. Consider the great gift of the sacrament of reconciliation, mediated by the priest, when called to the bedside of a sick or dying person. Hear once again those stunning words of comfort spoken by our Lord: “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” 10 Imagine how this proclamation of the good news sounds in the ears of a dying person.
Even in the presence of great suffering—physical pain, emotional anguish, the dread of loss, the fear of death—even then, reconciliation which comes from forgiveness, reconciliation which comes from reception of this sacrament, does bring shalom. The question is, how do we, and how does a dying person, find this shalom of reconciliation? Our faith makes the way clear. We freely and obediently turn to Jesus: in the sacraments, in prayer, in Scripture, in acts of love, in the Church—the communion of Christian sisters and brothers which is Christ’s Body. As Christians, we ultimately believe that Christ Jesus alone heals the wounds of sin and division.
Are we able to truly trust this gift of shalom from God? Pain and suffering can make this act of trust unimaginably daunting. As disciples, however, we do believe that the answer is “yes,” no matter how difficult. The Psalms encourage us, “In peace I shall both lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me secure.” 11 Are we able to trust the Lord, even as death approaches? Yes, for we believe the Lord’s promise: “I saw their ways, but I will heal them and lead them; I will give full comfort to them and to those who mourn for them, I, the Creator, who gave them life. Peace, peace to the far and the near, says the Lord; and I will heal them.” 12 Our challenge as Church, as covenant community, is also: can we help one another to more deeply trust the Lord?
The Gift of Eternal Life: “Shalom” with God and His Covenant Family in Eternity
First, then, we believe in the importance, necessity, and possibility of shalom with one another through reconciliation and forgiveness, especially near the time of death. Second, we believe and trust in, and proclaim, the promise of shalom in eternal life with God and with God’s covenant family. The prophet Isaiah tells us that “… the just man enters into peace.” 13 St. Joseph, patron saint of a good death, entered into eternal life, with his wife and his Lord by his side, and there we believe St. Joseph met those who had gone before him in the faith of Israel. Truly, this just man entered into shalom; but, of course, this is a gift held out not only to this one person, but to all believers.
The Genesis reading speaks of a divine promise: “you shall go to your fathers in peace.” 14 St. Joseph, we believe, did go to his fathers, to his people. Abraham also, we are told, was gathered to his people, and so also Ishmael, Isaac, and Jacob. This is a beautiful truth of our faith: the just one is gathered to everlasting shalom with those who have gone before.
The gift of shalom in a good death means that the repentant dying person is gathered by our merciful Father into his one family, by the Good Shepherd into the one flock, by the Holy Spirit into the one people. As Christians, as disciples baptized into the Body of Christ, we believe that, because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus our Savior, a good death is truly more about the beginning of divine life than it is about the ending of earthly life. St. Paul wisely reminds us that, “The concern of the flesh is death, but the concern of the spirit is life and peace.” 15 This truly is Gospel, evangelium, good news. As hard as it is at times to trust this promise, we believe that—because Jesus went to the Cross, died, and is risen—our physical death is now ultimately and radically more about shalom, as part of God’s covenant family, than it is about separation. This is our faith in the crucified and risen Lord; our shared faith in which we are also called to support one another. Alone and in the presence of death and grief, it is hard to keep faith, but together, it can become, at the very least, less difficult, as we are strengthened by our sisters and brothers in the Lord.
“On that day, the Lord made a covenant with Abram.” 16 The ultimate gift of shalom is unending reconciliation with God, and through his covenant, with all of redeemed creation. This is an everlasting shalom. In the beginning, the Book of Genesis reveals that God spoke, God created, and all was good, indeed very good. 17 The Book of Revelation, the last book of Scripture, promises that all creation will be renewed—restored to good, very good. 18 All that we have known, every person we have loved; everyone who has loved us: we are promised the concrete possibility of eternal shalom with all, forever in God’s loving sight.
But, again, how do we find this shalom of eternal life with God, and with all of redeemed creation? As disciples, we are called to freely and obediently turn to Jesus, the Crucified Christ and Risen Lord: in prayer, in sacrament, in Scripture, in the Church, in acts of love, in forgiveness, given and received.
The Gift of Truth and of Shalom Built on Truth
“Therefore love, truth, and peace.” 19 All life is sacred. This is Gospel truth; life is a gift from God. Death, ultimately, is a result of sin. Yet, God—Jesus on the Cross—has opened the way through death to life eternal with the Father, and with his covenant family. This is a truth we share as Christians. No one should usurp the Creator’s authority over life. The lie—subtle, cunning, tempting—is that we human beings have the power over life and death. Even when surrounded by good intentions; this is ultimately a lie. As Christians, we are called to rebuke this lie, and to speak this truth, of the sanctity of life, always in love. Speaking the truth in love will build up shalom: “Speak the truth to one another: let there be honesty and peace in the judgments at your gates.” 20 The gift of shalom, of the shalom of a good and holy death, is a gift to the whole Church: on earth and in Heaven, for eternity
Finally, we believe that this shalom of a good death is not only a gift to one person, or to their family. It is, rather, as with all of God’s graces, ultimately a gift to the entire Church. This gift of shalom is not just given for the good of individuals, but for the good of the whole Church. It is a communal gift, a shared gift to all of God’s covenant family: on earth and in Heaven.
The just man, St. Joseph, entered into eternal life in the presence of his wife and of his Lord, amidst the great and perfect joy of the heavenly kingdom, and, now, is able to lovingly intercede for us. As members of God’s covenant family, especially as death approaches, we, too, long to hear those words of shalom: “Peace be with you, and with your family, and with all who belong to you.” 21
We do belong to Jesus. We do belong to his family. We do belong with St. Joseph, patron of the universal Church, and with all those gone before us, marked with the sign of faith. We truly belong in the shalom of God’s family: here and now, and at the moment of death, and forever with God, and with all of redeemed creation.
- Gen 15:15. This article is based upon a sermon preached as part of a nine-week novena to St. Joseph as patron saint of a good death. My thanks to Monsignor Thomas Sullivan of Christ the King parish in Worcester, MA for his gracious invitation to preach this sermon, and to the parishioners who attended the novena. ↩
- The Hebrew noun shalom is simply and commonly translated as peace; Strong’s Hebrew: 7965. ↩
- 1 Kgs 5:18; Ps 122:6; Ex 4:18; Ps 4:9; Gen 15:15; Lv 26:3-6; Ps 4:9. ↩
- Ps 85:11. ↩
- Ratzinger, Joseph. On the Way to Jesus Christ. Translated by Michael J. Miller. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005, 107. ↩
- Mt 5:23-24; Mt 7:5; Mt 18:15-17; Lk 15:21; Lk 17:3; Eph 4:31-32; James 5:16. ↩
- Gen 15:12. I am not claiming to describe what Abraham experienced, as described in Genesis 15. Rather, I am borrowing the image of darkness to describe what many dying people go through. ↩
- Gen 15:12. ↩
- Gen 15:18a. ↩
- Luke 7:50. ↩
- Psalm 4:9. ↩
- Isaiah 57:19. ↩
- Is 57:2. ↩
- Gen 12:16. ↩
- Romans 8:6. ↩
- Gen 15:18a. ↩
- Gen 1:31. ↩
- cf. Rev 22:1-5. ↩
- Zech 8:19. ↩
- Zech 8:16. ↩
- 1 Samuel 25:6 ↩