A few times during my childhood I had a dream of having fallen over a cliff and hanging by my right hand to a small shrub to keep myself from plunging into the abyss below. Another man who had also fallen over the precipice was holding on for dear life to my left hand. Finally, in extreme exhaustion, I let go of the man holding onto me. Waking up, I felt horribly guilty.
Finally, I can revise that nightmare and complete the story with a happy ending: By holding on to my brother with EVERYTHING, I shall be saved.
By the way Jesus died, he converted the Roman centurion who was in charge of his execution. Imagine the tough life of this soldier and how calloused he would have become to the suffering that was common around him. But he saw in Jesus someone who did not use his powers of resistance. Jesus forgive the soldiers who knew nothing of their victims and had their work to do; he instructed his apostle John to take care of his mother, responded with faith encouragement to his crucified neighbor who called out for salvation, focused his mind by recalling Psalm 22, which begins in distress and ends in triumph; and he ended his life in strength and in the power of faith: “Father, it is finished. Into your hands I comment my spirit.”
We can understand why the centurion would have been moved to join Jesus’ followers. He had seen the triumph of death with dignity and more. He had seen the supreme revelation of devotion to the Father and supreme love and mercy poured out upon all those who might be reached, directly or indirectly, by that love and mercy.
In order to have my last hours focused on the Father and on the one I follow, I have wanted to die in solitude. But I recently reflected: Perhaps witnessing my dying could encourage someone’s faith. If a person wants to accompany me on the last leg of this journey, I will welcome them.
There is one more part to this meditation. I measure my life by the yardstick of my direct and indirect contribution to evangelism. It seems to me that there is one great decision that each person makes in this world, the decision to say yes or no to God. Everything else is secondary. So my essential service is to help others see the way of faith so that they may be encouraged in the solitary decision that each person must make alone.
Life in this world normally brings persons to “a parting of the ways.” This phrase comes from Joshua, the successor of Moses, who challenged his people, “Choose this day whom you will serve.” I interpret the parting of the ways as implying that there is a supreme decision that we make to God’s invitation to join him in the way of life. After that watershed decision, our life will flow one direction or the other. I have met people who seemed to have passed the parting of the ways and said no; in the case of one of them, I can entertain no doubt whatsoever. But I have decided to assume that there is still hope for everyone, unless I am Told otherwise. Following the principle of assuming the potential for success in conditions of uncertainty, I will keep holding on.
May the way you die—and live—be such as would convert a centurion.