Seventeen year old Cincinnati High School senior dies.
A headline such as this would normally catch our attention to some degree. What would stop us probably is the age. Because we know that it’s seventy-seven year olds, and not seventeen year olds that are supposed to die. But what makes this death different (as if there were any difference in death) is that this Cincinnati senior was an athlete, one of the nation’s top offensive high school lineman, recruited by every college in the nation. This 6’6″ 290 man/child had signed a four-year scholarship to pay football at the University of Notre Dame. He was the cream of the crop. The top of the top. And yet even with all of his honed physical prowess, his finely tuned athletic skills, none of these could save him from a sudden and shocking death. Death is a Mystery. It is not God’s plan, it is not normative or normal. We were created for life, and meant for eternal life, so when death comes upon us it is hurtful, painful, and final.
He had everything going for him. High School All-American, soon to become a student athlete at Notre Dame one of the nation’s leading academic and football powerhouses; and yet, how could it be that he would die. The injustice of it seems insurmountable. He did not die of cancer, or leukemia, or of a heart attack or some rare cellular disease. Neither did he die in a car accident which is prone to happen somehow with inexperienced high school drivers, and for all we know, he didn’t even have a driver’s license yet.
Rather this young man, Matthew James, fell head first to his death from a fifth floor balcony while on Spring Break in Panama City, Florida. In front of the eyes of his high school QB and teammate who would be joining him on scholarship at ND and a host of his fellow classmates. They watched their friend, full of accolades and potential fall to his death while he was right beside them. Their spring break was over before it even began.
The tragedy of this story is not only that he died; but how he died. There was no banana peel to slip on, no illegal balcony rail that broke. Eyewitnesses say that he, along with forty other of his classmates, were intoxicated with alcohol by 6:30pm on Good Friday when his death occurred only hours upon their arrival to Florida. This young man unfortunately ingested alcohol illegally – he was 17. He drank too much, he lost his judgement, motor skills and his rational sense, and as a result, got belligerent while drinking, reportedly breaking things in the room, making noise and then leaning over the balcony threatening people in another room. And then…
He fell five stories. He died immediately. He died on Good Friday. At the age of 17, one week before his 18th birthday. His life, the life of his parent’s and friends would change for eternity. They will never look at Good Friday or Pascha the same way again.
Our first response is: “This should not have happened?” “Tell me it’s not true?” Our next reaction is: “Where were the six parent chaperones? Were they unaware of what these kids were doing? and “How did 17-year-old High School kids get alcohol to drink?” What were his parents thinking? What was he thinking? But in the end we know that these 4 things never should be mixed together: Underage high school kids, Spring Break (or any party for that matter), alcohol, and careless indifferent chaperones. I feel this story intensely on many levels. For I too made silly decisions while in High School. I too made choices that put me in harm’s way on a number of occasions. I too was an athlete at 17 going away to school on a scholarship… and yet somehow in God’s divine, mysterious, and unknowable providence I didn’t slip and fall over…yet. I am still here.
But what this story reminds of us is simply this. This world is fallen…and so are we. Our choices are tainted with sin, and with Adam’s rejection of intimate communion with God, separation, death, and decay has been ushered into the world. Adam’s choice led to a consequence, and our choices too, lead to consequences. Death will come. It will come to everyone. It will come at anytime, and it can come in any way. But only one question remains:
“Will I be ready for death when it comes?
Will I live today, and each day, in such a way that I will not be surprised by death. That when it comes I will embrace it joyfully, and be ready completely to fall asleep and awaken to see my Savior’s face – and to hear His words: Welcome, well done, enter into the joy of your reward. Will I live in such a way, engaging in such behavior that I could recklessly cause my own death through choices that I make? Or will I seek to love God and choose the way for life that He has set before us – a way of repentance, sobriety, self-control, and self-denial? I know that there are accidents in life. Accidents that happen through no fault of our own. But then there are accidents like what happened to Matt James, accidents that often happen through poor decisions that we make. I wish this young man didn’t die. My heart aches for his parents, as I am a parent too, and wonder, and can only imagine what pain they must be suffering as they buried their child.
I have been reading a wonderful book called “The Inner Kingdom” by Bishop Kallistos Ware and he has an entire chapter on death and I want to share some of his insights with you over the next few posts. Here is a sample:
Let us not think of our human existence as a book. Most people regard this present life as the actual text, the main story, and they see the future life – if indeed, they believe that there is any future life – as no more than an appendix. But the genuinely Christian attitude is the exact reverse of this. Our present life is in reality no more than the preface, the introduction, while it is the future life that constitutes the main story. The moment of death signifies not the conclusion of the book but the start of Chapter One.
Two things, so obvious that they are easily overlooked, need to be said about this end-point which is in fact, the starting point. First, death is an unavoidable and certain fact; second, death is a mystery. This means that we are to view our coming death with contrasting feelings – with sober realism on the one side, and at the same time with awe and wonder.
Orthodox Prayer for Departed Christians
O God of spirits and of all flesh, Who hast trampled down death and overthrown the Devil, and given life to Thy world, do Thou, the same Lord, give rest to the souls of Thy departed servants in a place of brightness, a place of refreshment, a place of repose, where all sickness, sighing, and sorrow have fled away. Pardon every transgression which they have committed, whether by word or deed or thought. For Thou art a good God and lovest mankind; because there is no man who lives yet does not sin, for Thou only art without sin, Thy righteousness is to all eternity, and Thy word is truth.
For Thou are the Resurrection, the Life, and the Repose of Thy servants who have fallen asleep, O Christ our God, and unto Thee we ascribe glory, together with Thy Father, who is from everlasting, and Thine all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever unto ages of ages. Amen.
Matthew may you rest in peace. May the God of mercy grant you grace and a day of resurrection with all the Church. And may we learn lessons about what matters most in life from this tragic and sobering reality.