It has been my privilege many times to be with someone in their last moments before death. For some, awake and alert, the focus was on the comfort, consolation, and assurance. Reminding them of their baptism and of the promise and pledge God gave to them there, I gently moved them to see how this was now the completing of that baptismal grace. For some, with few cues to what they heard, the focus was more upon the family gathered in vigil around the one they loved. But again the same focus -- what God began in baptism is now made complete.
For most of these times I used the form for the Commendation of the Dying (from the Little Agenda of Lutheran Worship). I have not gotten used to the Pastoral Companion to the Lutheran Service Book and besides I almost know the old rite by heart. The part that I like best is when the Pastor lays his hand on the head of the dying Christian and says:
God in peace (name). My God the Father, who created you, my God the Son, who redeemed and saved you with His blood, may God the Holy Spirit, who sanctified you in the water of Holy Baptism, now receive you into the company of the saints and angels to live in the light of His glory forevermore.
Then that wonderful stanza from "Lord, Thee I Love with All My Heart"
Then let at last Thine angels come,
To Abram's bosom bear me home
That I may die unfearing.
Within my earthen chamber keep
My body safe in peaceful sleep
Until Thy reappearing.
And then from death awaken me
That my own eyes with joy may see,
O Son of God, Thy glorious face,
My Savior and my ground of grace.
Lord Jesus Christ, Oh, hear my prayer;
Oh, hear my prayer. Thy love surround me ev'rywhere.
It is the greatest of privileges to sit with a family and bring to them the consoling word of the Gospel in the moment of a loved one's death. It is a cherished moment for me as a Pastor. I dare not squander this moment in small talk or sentiment. Nothing less than the Gospel will do, the Word which gives life in the midst of death.
Too often people die alone in hospitals or nursing homes. Sometimes families do not want to be there. My wife is a nurse in a critical care unit and more than I can count she has stayed by the bedside of one dying so that that person is not alone. We need to sing a Te Deum for those who care for our loved ones in their dying hours. But I wish that more families and more Pastors could be there with their parishioners for this final act of love's duties.
"Now and in the hour of our death..." is a well known phrase from the Rosary. I steal it here to commend the practice of keeping vigil with those soon to depart this life. Far from being the victory of death, the Christian sees this moment as the triumph of Christ's life. That we carry in our bodies this victory until finally we are sealed in its power and transported from death to life is one of the great comforts of Christian faith and life. That we may echo Job's words with our own voices "I shall not die but live" is the hallmark of this moment.
As one who has been at that bedside many times, who has kept vigil over a body when family is not around, who has waited for the coroner and the legalities when shut ins have been found dead, and who has brought many families into a hospital room to allow them to say their good byes, I cherish the trust these people place in me and the solemn yet wonderful duty a Pastor keeps when you are with those in the hour of their death. Pray, yes... but speak calmly and forcefully what we already know but may not remember in the clash of emotions and tears... I look for in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come... Amen.