If a beautiful death authenticates a holy life, then we can feel good about John Calvin. On February 6, 1564 Calvin, 55 years old, stood for the last time in his pulpit at Saint Pierre in Geneva. In mid-sermon, he was seized by a coughing fit and his mouth filled with blood. He slowly forced his way down the circular staircase from the pulpit, his sermon unfinished.

On Easter Sunday, April 2, he was carried back to Saint Pierre’s and sat near the pulpit, listening as Theodore Beza preached. At the end of the service, Calvin joined the congregation in singing a final hymn, “Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.” He was taken to his bed, still working feverishly on his papers. When friends begged him to rest, he replied, “What! Would you have the Lord find me idle when he comes?” On April 30 the Geneva Council gathered around him. He spoke to them, prayed for them, and gave his right hand to each one. The men left the bedroom weeping like children. Two days later Geneva’s ministers paid a similar visit. Calvin asked pardon for his failings, pointed the men to Christ and grasped their hands tenderly. They, too, parted with anguished tears.

When it appeared the end was near, his friend and mentor, 80-year-old William Farel, set out on foot, walking a long distance, hoping to make it in time. He arrived covered with dust to join others who had gathered at the deathwatch. Calvin lingered, quoting Scripture and praying continually, until Saturday, May 27, 1564, just as the sun was setting. He passed from one life to another very quietly, without twitch or gasp or even a deeper sigh. “On this day with the setting sun,” said Beza, “the brightest light in the Church of God on earth was taken to heaven!” Geneva mourned deeply.

Calvin had instructed that his body be laid in a common cemetery with no tombstone. He didn’t want his grave becoming a shrine as tombs of earlier saints had become. It didn’t—today his grave site is unknown.

“Lord, I am your servant, and now I can die in peace, because you have kept your promise to me. With my own eyes I have seen what you have done to save your people, and foreign nations will also see this. Your mighty power is a light for all nations. … ” (Luke 2:29-32a)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). May 27.

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