Sunday, December 1, 2013

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

Living and working among the poor in Mexico and in other countries of Latin America has certainly given me a new appreciation for these words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. It is impossible to be here and to not experience death almost daily. But resurrection is also a beautiful part of the same experience.

I can remember several occasions when I would be driving a very sick person to a hospital and I would be told by a family member that I could turn around, that the sick person had died. Continuing to the hospital would only involve paperwork and expense; why go on?

I remember giving a family a colorful blanket that I had bought thinking that it would be a great gift for my mother the next time I went to Canada. Instead, we used the blanket to wrap the body of a mother who had died in the village that day. My blanket was her coffin.
Cemetery in the background of Cochoapa el Grande
I remember being asked (because I was the tallest person around) to tear off a piece of plastic that was being used to keep out the rain on the roof of a “house” that wouldn't even qualify as a “shack” to most people. We used the plastic to wrap the body of a baby boy who had died that day. The plastic was his coffin.

I remember thinking of how “macho” many men in Mexico are purported to be. Seeing Enrique moaning on the ground of the cemetery and screaming “Why, oh God, why?” as we buried his twenty-five-year old wife didn't make him seem too “macho.”

I remember my own pain when I returned from a four-day visit to some villages and learned that Pepito, a five-year-old boy who hung around my house every day and who was my “special buddy,” had died of diarrhea why I was away. If I had been there, maybe I could have done something.

I remember so many elderly people who died slowly and painfully on old straw mats on dirt floors in their homes. Definitely, there were times when death seemed to have a very great “sting.”
Cemetery in Tlacoapa
But the people—the family members and the community members who stay behind to struggle on—never seem to lose hope or to see death as “being the victor” or “stinging.” Death is simply the passageway to the next life. It is the fate for all, and it is to be accepted as a “natural” part of life—although malnutrition and exploitation are not "natural" parts of life. After almost thirty years with these people, I think I have “absorbed” (gratefully) some of their relationship with death.

Especially “educational” for me has been the experience of living and working with people who risk death—an almost-certain death, in many cases—by struggling against the injustice, exploitation, and suffering of so many of their people. In other words, they risk their own "unnatural" death in order to assure a dignified life and a "natural" death for their people.

I remember Reynaldo. He was the eighth president of an independent, non-governmental human rights commission. All previous seven presidents of the commission had been either murdered or disappeared.

On his thirty-ninth birthday, a small party, with several close friends, was held for Reynaldo.
As Reynaldo bent over to blow out the candles on the cake that had been bought for this festive occasion, someone jokingly shouted, “Don’t worry, Reynaldo; you’re not old yet. You’re only thirty-nine; you won’t be old until you hit forty.”

Without meaning to dampen the spirits of anyone present, Reynaldo turned his head for a second toward the people around him and simply asked, “Do any of you really think I’ll live to see forty?” Then he blew out the candles, and the celebration continued. But everyone present knew that Reynaldo was right: undoubtedly, he would never live to see forty. But that didn't mean that he’d give up the struggle for justice.

I apologize for thinking of death today, on the First Sunday of Advent of 2013—a time of coming, of new life, of new hope, of renewed love. But today my mother died. She was blessed to be allowed to live eighty-five years, and she used that time to love as generously and as fully as she could. She lived her life with so much faith, hope, and love that I know that she would be the first to repeat the words of St. Paul: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” She continues her journey, and I can only pray that I can live my earthly life with as much faith, hope, and love as she did. Thank you, Mom; I love you.
Mom's right hand at the end—no, at the beginning of something new.
Have a wonderful Advent season, my friends.


  1. Thank you for sharing Mike. God bless you and your family.

  2. Father Wilbert, thank you for your blessing wish. Hopefully our paths will cross someday. I've heard great things about you. God bless.