This year, on Christmas day, if you were relying on trending news stories alone, you might think the most important thing happening in the world was that the lead singer of Wham, George Michael, had died at the young age of 53. Don’t get me wrong here, it’s sad that Michael died, especially on Christmas day, and especially so early. I know he was a celebrity and that his death would make the headlines no matter when it was.
But there was something very odd about the day we celebrate Christ’s birth being so overshadowed by news of a celebrity death. Then again, 2016 seems to have been an almost unprecedented year for the sheer number of big name celebrities who have passed away.
Just to name a few, this year has seen the likes of Muhammad Ali, David Bowie, Florence Henderson, Glenn Frey, Harper Lee, John Glenn, Alan Thicke, Arnold Palmer, Gene Wilder, Prince, Doris Roberts, and Morley Safer. Personally, Gene Wilder’s death was the biggest blow, as I’ve watched all of his films since I was a child and have run the lines from Young Frankenstein back and forth with my brother since he was barely able to talk.
Truth be told, probably all of us have been shocked by one or more of this year’s famous deaths. But why are we so shocked?
I don’t mean to suggest that there’s no reason to react to a death, whether that’s from a celebrity or a person we actually know. But there’s something strange about the way we treat celebrities, and even more strange about the way we imagine them. We forget, I think, that any celebrity we know is usually a well-crafted persona, and that deep below is a real, normal, human person.
Because we’re so quick to forget this, it’s easy to project these people from ordinary into superhuman beings. They just seem larger than life, and we also imagine their lives to be perfect, carefree. Of course that means when they suffer or, God help us, when they die, it shocks our system. If they can have pain and problems in life…or, if they can die, then…what about regular folks like us?!
Yet, at the end of the day, nobody is larger than life. Meaning, nobody will escape what life offers to all of us in the end. We are all mortal. Part of the beauty of the Church’s celebration of Ash Wednesday is the priest’s reminder to us that “You are dust, to dust you shall return.” These words are not meant to frighten us, as a way of scolding which is supposed to get us to prepare for our immediate demise. In fact, Pope Benedict XVI, back when he was a cardinal, referred to the common creation of human beings from the earth a consoling idea, because it helps us remember that however much the world might separate us from one another, at the end of the day (and at the beginning!) we all share a common humanity, a common weakness and fragility.
This morality, as it turns out, is sort of a mainstay of the Church’s liturgical life, year-round. For instance, in the Creed, we pray every Sunday about Christ’s death, when we say that “He was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death, and was buried.” Later, we pray for the deaths of others. In Eucharistic Prayer I, for example, we hear these words:
Remember also, Lord, your servants N. and N., who have gone before us with the sign of faith and rest in the sleep of peace. Grant them, O Lord, we pray, and all who sleep in Christ, a place of refreshment, light, and peace.
But the Church’s reference to death, in the liturgy and in her doctrine, is always tied to resurrection. The Church hopes and prays for all of us that we might pass from this life into eternal life, to union with Christ and the Communion of Saints forever. Thus, while we do mention the death of Christ in the creed, we immediately turn to his Resurrection, saying that Jesus “rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”
This faith in life beyond death, is a radical claim of the Christian faith. It’s what inspired so many of the Church’s first martyrs, and it is central to our belief as Catholics. Praying for the dead is also an important aspect of our faith. In fact, it’s one of the spiritual works of mercy.
Of course, we also pray for our own death. In the Hail Mary, for instance, we ask Mary to “pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death.” The Fatima prayer also references our own mortality.
Finally, let us remember that the Church constantly celebrates the death of its own believers. Not, mind you, because it was so wonderful that they died, but because it marks the entrance into eternity. The saints we celebrate throughout the year, their feast days actually mark the day they died.
There’s no denying 2016 was a rough year, and we did lose a lot of major stars and super talented people. But I think one thing that gets lost in the discussion about all the deaths is the bigger picture. After we die, what’s next? Is everything about how much living we can do here and now, til it all ends for us? I don’t think so. Neither does the Church. And frankly, if we want to see what real living looks like, we’re not likely to find that from celebrities. But that’s a post for another day.
UPDATE (Dec. 29). I wrote this article originally on the morning of Dec. 27th. Later that same day, Carrie Fisher tragically passed away after suffering a heart attack a few days prior. Then the very next day, Dec. 28th, her mother passed. Truly a sad reminder of the short time we have on earth, but remember that life doesn’t simply terminate at our death. There is more. Please pray for the families and for all who have passed this year, not just the celebrities.
God Love You!