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And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life

And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life

Editor’s Note: Missioner Joleen Johnson shares a reflection on life and death that she wrote and shared for the Transitus prayer service, which celebrates St. Francis’s passing from life to death, and the deeper meaning she found after her grandfather’s passing a few days later.

As a Franciscan Mission Service missioner placed in Kingston, Jamaica, I have the absolute privilege of living among an extraordinary community of Franciscan Sisters. As Transitus approached this year, I was asked by one of the Sisters to write a reflection and read it aloud at our Transitus service. The day after Transitus, the celebration of St. Francis of Assisi’s passing from earthly life to eternal life, my grandpa passed away unexpectedly. 

This blog incorporates reflections from our Transitus celebration, as well as what Transitus meant the next day for me in the wake of my grandpa’s death. 

The Transitus service at the convent was absolutely beautiful. Candles were lit, Scripture was read, the story of Francis’ last night was recounted, songs were sung, and prayers were prayed. The feeling of community inevitably filled the chapel as the other local Franciscan Sisters from nearby convents joined us for the Transitus commemoration. Extra warmth filled the chapel and the lobby afterwards as everyone enjoyed each other’s company; they hadn’t been able to gather like this for the past couple of years due to the Covid pandemic, so sharing a Transitus service all together again was even more special.

Before we processed out of the chapel with our candles, it was time to read my reflection for everyone present. Here is an excerpt from it: 

796 years ago, St. Francis of Assisi transitioned from his earthly life into eternal life, and what a beautiful approach he exemplified in embracing his death. Death is a very confusing thing. It is the only thing we really don’t have control over. God gave us all free will, but we don’t have a choice to not die, to not cease breathing the air of God’s Creation begun in the Garden of Eden. Maybe the fact that we all know that we will die someday, and that we have no way to prevent that from happening, is a scary reality for some of us. Nevertheless, Francis’ approach to death seems rather unusual in 2022. How can we fathom Francis being so comfortable with his impending death that he called it ‘Sister Death’? And beyond that, exclaiming, ‘WELCOME, Sister Death,’ like welcoming a relative?

I think the truth is that we were all created for heaven. And God’s desire all along, since before our creation, is that we spend eternity with Him in heaven. So perhaps if we were created for heaven, and heaven is where St. Francis was confident that his destination was, then maybe this notion brought him more peace, and the ability to accept that he was very near to Sister Death. Maybe Francis sought to bring heaven to earth. Perhaps he was a light to show the people of his time (every soul who he encountered), and now he shines even to us today, the love that God in heaven radiates. Perhaps through his love, St. Francis brought a glimpse of heaven to this earth.”

Although I’m the one who wrote them, the above words had a different effect on me the next day and the following days as I began to process the death of my last living grandparent. During her time in hospice a few years prior, my grandma used to say, “no one makes it out of here alive.” She had a great point. We all know that we will die someday, and for those who have already gone before us, such as my grandparents, I imagine that the whole culmination of death is no longer a burden for them. It is only us, still on earth, who are hurt and affected by their deaths. As much as it hurts though, and as confused as we may feel, it’s important to remember that God is still in control.

I don’t know what God thinks of death, but I wonder sometimes if His disposition is like this: God has been patiently and eagerly waiting every moment of the now deceased person’s whole life for them to be in union again with God in heaven. Maybe it brings a little more peace to think that God, who is love and who created love, and who loved each of us into existence, wants to be in union for eternity with us, and with every loved one who has gone before us. Suppose then that the most loving thing that we can ever do is to desire for the ones we love to be ever closer to true love itself—God. And if we love a person and want them to be as close to their loving Father as possible, then the person must inevitably die in order to be born to eternal life and have the opportunity to remain with God in heaven forever. No one gets that opportunity until they die. Jesus said (in John 12:24-25), “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” No one can have eternal life unless they die. We are like the grain of wheat: when it dies, it can now take a new life and live through the new fruit.

The Prayer of St. Francis hymn has run through my head a lot lately. Throughout the beginnings of processing my grandpa’s death in light of St. Francis’ Transitus, what seems to be repeatedly coming up for me is the final line: “And in dying that we are born to eternal life.” In light of that notion, maybe we can take a moment to reflect on this, and the fact that every person is a gift from God. Then every moment of time, and every interaction that we get to spend with another person is a gift too. So every person in our lives, and each of our loved ones, is a gift, and is borrowed to our company for the time. May we appreciate each person and each gift, until we too fully experience that it is in dying that we (ourselves) are born to eternal life.

Question for reflection: In light of Sister Death’s inevitable call, how are you embracing your life and the lives of those around you as gift? 

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Joleen discovered her passion for overseas service during her first mission trip in 2012 to Guatemala. Since then she has served in Haiti and studied abroad in India, teaching English in an elementary school, after which she began to feel the call to longer term overseas service. Joleen is excited to see what God will teach her through FMS, and looks forward to living out His call for her. She is inspired by FMS’s humble and relational approach to ministry.