It is a strange truth that one of the great joys of our faith is the celebration of funerals, especially funeral Masses. Its strange because we generally don’t think of funerals as a moment of anything beyond grief.
Doubtlessly, funerals are laced with grief and loss. It is one of those times when we are faced with the hard reality of the wages of sin. There is no avoiding death, despite our best efforts to keep it far away. Funerals don’t allow us to avoid that reality. But there is the potential of an amazing process taking place at a funeral.
We are all gathered together in solidarity. Old grudges, long-held hurts and painful memories don’t matter – wiped out by the pain of now and the need for companionship. The very strength of grief and the compassion that follows it has the power to bring about forgiveness that had previously been withheld with a vengeance. Old friendships and fondnesses rekindle.
As the liturgy begins, the finality of it is mixed with a numb confusion at an unfamiliar form of the Mass. The details that were labored over – music, pallbearers, readings, petitions – are muddled in the strangeness of loss and liturgy. Its a blur of movement from the baptismal font to the front of the church.
Things begin to take on a new tone as the Scriptures are read. The theological virtues of faith, hope and love are newly seen revealed as the anchors that they were intended to be. Slowly, sometimes one by one, sometimes as a whole, family and friends begin to listen carefully, hanging on to each word. The homily, specifically tailored for this moment, has the power to draw them beyond grief to something more: the spark of understanding of God’s great love and salvific work – and of our part in it.
As the Mass continues, the movement to the Eucharist seems natural to even the most distant person in the pew. Something transcendent is going on, equally mysterious as the reality of death and hope. The words of Eucharistic prayer affirm what was read from Scripture and preached in the homily. Catholic or not, it is understood that something profound is going on, and it is somehow more powerful than the grief that first marked the liturgy.
As communion is received – often for the first time in quite some time (having followed the first confession of the same period) – something resembling the faith of previous years can be seen lighting up people’s eyes.
The final prayers and rituals of the liturgy begin. The sight and smell of incense offers a reassuring earthiness to what has proven to be a heaven-ward work. As the final hymn is sung together, there is something different about the congregation. A sense of satisfaction that laces the grief and perhaps even the beginnings of a lasting peace.
Death, by its very nature, transcends life as we know it. The ancient wisdom of memento mori – ‘remember that you will die’ – is that we are meant to be an upwards gazing people. The pain of death is felt most sharply when we’ve failed to let go of what was freely given and is just as freely taken – taken so that we might be given something more lasting. In order for us to join in Christ’s resurrection, we necessarily share in His suffering and death.
Can we look forward to the resurrection without seeing our suffering and death as gifts leading towards that? Sounds a lot like the journey of Lent towards Easter.
your brother in Christ,