Yesterday, The Globe and Mail ran a story about a woman named Catharina MacMillan, under the headline “The Good Death.” Catharina was a mom and wife who, after a long battle with cancer, was given only months to live. She chose to face it head on. Making plans for her own funeral and final days. Taking care of her will with its precise instructions. Saying goodbye to loved ones. Taking one final trip to a beloved location with those closest to her. She knew what was coming and she laid the groundwork for those who would be left behind. This was the good death that the story described, one perhaps we all hope for, even though, most of the time, we dare not speak of it.
The story opened with Catharina’s husband Tom, alone in their condo, three days after her funeral. Getting rid of all the medical equipment that had been necessary so she could stay at home through her illness. Dividing his wife’s scarf collection among her friends. Tying up those last loose ends. And figuring out what would come next.
And that is where we find our disciples in our gospel on this second Sunday of Easter. Cloistered in a room, fearing persecution for their connection to Jesus, struggling with their own “Good Death.” Everything has happened as Jesus had laid it out before them. Step by step, it came to pass. The journey to Jerusalem. The betrayals. The false charges. The crucifixion. And the rising again on Easter. And now the disciples are waiting alone in a room for their next step. This is when Jesus appears to them, to firm up their belief again – and, as we know, to set them on the next part of their journey.
Missing during that visit is Thomas – outspoken Thomas whose doubt on first take appears to be such a failing. In the past, Thomas has been the much maligned character in the story, the one whose belief was not strong or true enough to stand without proof. The weak link in blind faith. But, in fact, Thomas speaks for many of us when he demands proof. He asks the question we all ask, even if quietly: How do we know for sure? And Jesus appears to Thomas, hears out his doubt, and gives him the proof he seeks, with a gentle chastising: You believe, he says, because you see with your own eyes. Blessed are those who believe without seeing.
This Sunday is also known as Low Sunday, the day when all the air has been let out of the balloon, when the celebration of Easter is past, when life goes on. When we must find our faith, not in the quiet solace of Lent, or the darkness of Good Friday, or the brightness of Eastern morning, but in the everyday. The disciples were in the same boat, for even a vision of Jesus, under the difficult circumstance they would soon face, under the hardship of fleeing Jerusalem and sustaining their ministry must have faded so quickly that in bleak moments they might have wondered whether they had seen it at all. In our second lesson, Peter sounds so firm in his faith it is hard to imagine he wavered – but we also know this is the same man who challenged the decisions of Jesus, who denied his connection to Jesus – surely those doubts did not end when he was left alone.
How Jesus reacts to Thomas, I have always thought, suggests that God does not, in the end, expect our faith to be blind, to always be unquestioning. At times we must indeed, go on faith; that is, believe without seeing. We need to trust that we can get through whatever happens, that we are strong enough to manage, that God is with us when we have no proof. But at other times, I would argue, our questions are fair, our doubt is reasonable, and asking those questions – as Thomas did – is just as reasonable. Faith is not something that happens. Faith is not a belief that God will take care of everything. It is a faith that, guided by God, we can handle anything.
Certainly, Jesus had done his best to prepare the disciples – and us – for his Good Death. Leaving the examples of his ministry – to be kind and generous, to serve others before ourselves, to find courage in uncertainty, to be open to difference and closed to judgment, to speak carefully and act consciously. That is the recipe for a Good Life – even after the party, in those everyday moments.
That is what so impressed me about Catharina MacMillan. In a way, the headline is wrong. Facing death, in the end, she chose to make her life good. She chose to walk with deliberate steps and plan out her last days to make them count. Even if she had doubts, she was not ruled by them, and they did not dictate her final days. And in the end, she left her family knowing exactly who she had been, and how much they had been loved and knowing clearly how she would now want them to live.
That is the message on this Low Sunday. The one that Jesus imparts to the disciples once again. This is the lesson we are invited to learn for our own lives: the knowledge that death punctuates life. It encourages us to live our lives to the fullest, especially as we are confronted by questions and uncertainty. To help people know exactly who we are and how much we love them. Each one of us, like Ella this morning, is ‘bravely born’ into a life that has an end. The Good Death feeds life when we have faith in the everyday moments. Amen.