At the hour of our death

“At the hour of our death.” For Catholics, those words are instantly recognizable as the end of the Hail Mary. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, amen.

Although we often pray the Hail Mary, it is something we particularly pray when someone is dying, or is in danger of death. We pray it when we hear a siren, for those who are in danger, and perhaps approaching the hour of their death. When my dear friend Mark was in his final hours, what I needed to do was pray the rosary. I didn’t even really understand why; only, “I am Catholic, and this is what we do.”

There’s another liturgical phrase that most Catholics recognize, although it has more variation in the exact wording: By sharing in his suffering and death, may we also come to share in his resurrection. It’s Jesus’ suffering and death that we’re talking about, of course. I was originally puzzled by the variant that said “by suffering a death like his,” because I took it literally: Jesus’s death was crucifixion, and that’s not how most of us die.

Eventually, I figured out that the crucifixion was only the means of his death, not the substance of it. Fundamentally, Jesus died because he was human. Through the Incarnation, he took on our humanity, our mortality. Humans die: it’s constitutive of the human condition. By one means or another, we all die. The words of the prayer have it backwards: Jesus suffered a death like ours.

And his mother was there.

Mary was there, at Calvary. She saw him nailed to the cross. She witnessed his suffering. She watched as he drew his last breath. She saw him die. Tradition has it that she cradled his dead body in her arms, grieving, after he was taken down from the cross, before he was placed in the tomb.

And that’s why. That’s why we pray to Mary when someone we love is dying, or has died, or when someone is in danger of death: because Jesus suffered a death like ours, and Mary was there.

Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners,

Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

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