Famous last words: one never knows the ending

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Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP celebrated a Mass for members of the Association of Papal Orders at St Mary’s Cathedral Crypt on 14 November. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

As she approached the guillotine, the erstwhile Archduchess of Austria, Dauphine of France, then Queen of France and Navarre, Marie Antoinette, trod on her executioner’s foot. Her instant reaction was to say “Pardonnez-moi, monsieur”, her last words reflecting her aristocratic training.

The artist Raphael, no doubt pleased to be presently on display in the Art Gallery of NSW, died with a single word on his lips, “Happy”. Blues singer Bessie Smith said “I’m going, but I’m going in the name of the Lord.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle touchingly said to his wife as he was dying, “You are wonderful!” and Percy Grainger told his wife Ella, “You’re the only one I like.” Sir Isaac Newton, with admirable humility, went out declaring his scientific efforts mere playing with pebbles and shells compared to “the great ocean of truth which lay all undiscovered” and Leonardo da Vinci, also presently represented at our Art Gallery, declared he feared he’d offended God and mankind by not doing better than he had.

As Alfred Hitchcock was dying he said, “One never knows the ending. One has to die to know exactly what happens after death, although Catholics have their hopes.” Both Christ and St Stephen said, “Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.”

Ranging as both the living and the dying do, from the sublime to the ridiculous, drummer Buddy Rich was asked by a nurse on his way into surgery which he did not survive, “Is there anything you can’t take?” to which Rich replied, “Yeah, country music.” At the end Frank Sinatra said simply, “I’m losing it” and Steve Jobs reportedly said simply, “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.” Joan Crawford told her praying housekeeper, “Damn it! Don’t you dare ask God to help me!”

Famous last words provide a fascinating study in human nature, personality and that most mysterious event in a human life – our death. In my little collection we see courtesy, affection, satisfaction, dissatisfaction, humility, trust, fear, wonder, penitence and even final impenitence. It is very likely that what we say and think as we are dying reflects something of what we said and thought while we were living.

Even if, as Hitchcock observed, we don’t quite know the end of the movie of life, the character will have developed throughout the story, by virtue of their choices and habits. Of course, deathbed conversions are possible, so that those who have led rather less than godly lives can, like John Wayne and Oscar Wilde, have rather godly deaths. But consistent or converted, how we die will, we know, affect our eternal destiny. Well may we end our Aves, with “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

On the face of it, our first reading is a rather puzzling poem (Wis 18:14-6; 19-6-9). For Christians it’s obviously about Christ: it tells of how the all-powerful Word of God came down from heaven to earth, yet remained of both domains, so He “touched the sky, yet trod the earth”. It was one “silent night”, one holy night, He came. Knights and dames will surely notice when Christ is compared, as He is here, with a soldier prince, from a royal and holy throne, carrying the sharp sword of God’s commands and chivalrously defending the weak. And the effect of the coming of this heavenly knight, the wise poet declares, was “to keep [God’s] children from all harm”, to “new fashion the whole creation”, so that God’s people will skip like lambs and sing the praises of their Redeemer.

Yet there is a jarring note in all this: the Word descends carrying God’s unambiguous command and filling the universe… with death. Now, that’s surely not the god we Christians adore. We are soon to observe a Jubilee Year of Mercy when the central theme will be the “God slow to anger and rich in compassion”. We know Him as the author of life and love; who does not desire our deaths; who patiently holds out the hand of mercy and the promise of eternal life. Yet our reading says He brings death.

What is going on here? The meaning behind our poem is about the coming of Christ the Redeemer, but in the foreground is the story of the crossing of the Red Sea. That is the great story of liberation. But it is also a story of God’s mercy operative precisely amidst death. An angelic knight defends the children of Israel from the tyranny of stone-hearted Pharaoh, so they pass dry-shod through the Sea. And so those obedient to the Lord’s commands are saved; but those who resist His entreaties are damned. This becomes a type or allegory, prefiguring death and rebirth for the Christian soul as it passes through the Red Sea of Baptism and for all humanity as they pass from death to eternal life and to the long-promised new heavens and new earth. Out of death – if not positively willed by God, at least permitted by Him – comes new life, a life at last free from sin and its effects.

If our scriptural sonnet suggests death can be an occasion for renewal rather than annihilation, for divine mercy rather than divine vengeance, it nonetheless suggests it is a sort of judgment on how we have lived till then. Once dead, there is nothing more we can do on this earth; our life-story is complete, the central character fully developed. There are no more chances to impress truth, beauty or goodness upon the world or ourselves. Unlike Joan Crawford, in the face of death we must face our mortality, finitude, littleness – and our need for help, for prayer. And Jesus suggests in our Gospel that we start praying now, not just when the end is near, and that we pray unremittingly (Lk 18:1-8).

To live well requires friendship with God. And to be friends with anyone, even with God, we must talk to them. So pray, Jesus says, talk to God and never lose hope. Once again a story that on the face of it offers a rather strange view of God – here, as an unjust judge finally badgered into justice by the endless nagging of an importunate widow – reveals a deeper truth. Our widow doesn’t care if she’s making a fuss or a scene; she wants justice and mercy, and goes to the only place to get it. A life cannot be well-lived without continually returning to God in prayer and persistently interceding for ourselves, our Church, our fellows.

It is a privilege to celebrate Mass for eminent men and women of our Church and community, whom the Church recognises have lived well. With such Knights and Dames and other awardees of various Pontifical Orders and ranks I am in illustrious company! I know you count among your members governors-general, justices, premiers and politicians; leaders of the professions, servants of the community and great benefactors of mankind. Popes have honoured you because local Churches have acknowledged your contributions. Like good servants you might say you have done no more than you ought. But we pray that your undoubted contributions prepare you well for your last words, whenever they come, whether they be profound or mundane, sublime or ridiculous.

This is an edited version of the homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at a Mass for members of the Association of Papal Orders at St Mary’s Cathedral Crypt on 14 November.