March 26, 2023

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

As we enter the final week in Lent before the Holy Week, the Church presents an important and serious theme for our reflection, the theme of life and death. This weekend’s Scriptural readings overwhelmingly proclaim that God is Master of life and death. These final days of Lent are meant to deepen our awareness and conviction of this truth, in preparation for the celebration of the Lord’s Paschal Mystery next week.

Death is one of the fearful things that nobody wants to hear about. It causes panic among people regardless of their status or power. Some people can embrace any kind of suffering but not death. I am often called upon to pray for dying people and to lead prayers for mourners at wake services or funerals. What I find is that many do not want to look at death in the face. They’d rather have me pray for an eventual healing, for comfort, consolation, or peace, without wanting to hear any mention about dying or death. Accepting that at times a sickness cannot be physically healed, and that death is inevitable as one gets older, is a reality that many people do not feel comfortable about, even in prayer. I have gone through this experience with my own dad upon his dying and death two years ago. To this day, to be honest, I still struggle to accept that he is gone. I consciously avoid thinking about the sad circumstances surrounding his final days. If it was not for my faith in life after death, I do not know if I could go on without despair.

In the first reading of this Sunday’s Mass, the people of Israel were in exile in a foreign land. In that circumstance, many of them were reduced to nothing. Some were killed either physically, mentally, socially or religiously. As the suffering became so much, many lost their faith in God. It was during this time that God sent Prophet Ezekiel to give them a consoling prophecy. In this prophecy God promises emphatically that He is going to raise the Israelites up – to restore them back to their land. Those who died will also be raised from their graves, full of God’s spirit. It was a promise of restoration from death to life. In the Gospel reading, this prophecy is fulfilled in Lazarus, a close friend of Jesus who was raised up to life again after he was dead for four days by the Lord. The raising of Lazarus is a true indication that those who make Jesus their friend can never remain in the grave forever. This Gospel story brings consolation and hope. Death will not be something that can make us panic.

Brothers and sisters, we must befriend God always. Just as Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, He will do it for you and for me. In the face of the last pandemic, some people were so ready to face the reality of death. These people were making a lot of sacrifices for others. They were courageous and unafraid. When I was spending a month caring for my own dying father and severely sick mother at NYU hospital at the height of the pandemic, another priest friend of mine from Houston, Texas volunteered to come to Elmhurst Hospital to care for dying Covid patients for three months, despite not having any family member or relative living in this city.  He told me that he was not afraid of the virus, but of the fact that he was not prepared to die and meet the Lord. His courageous and noble act was a way for him to live out his own faith in Christ, his Savior and best friend.  This unique perspective of that young priest gave me a lot to think about.

Jesus says in the Gospel: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (Jn 11:25). This belief is what gets me through my grieving. It gives me reasons to continue living in hope, and motivates me to continue my proclamation of God’s victory over death, especially to those living in distress, anguish, or fear.

As we approach the climax of Lent and head into the celebrations of Holy Week, may you find strength and assurance in the promise of the Lord as I have found. Next Sunday, Palm Sunday, in the reading of the Lord’s Passion, the reality of death and dying may once again shake us to the core, but it should not make us panic in any way, because on the Sunday that follows, Easter Sunday, the resurrection of the Lord from the dead will be the focus of our hope and joy.

Faithfully yours in Christ,

Msgr. Cuong M. Pham