The Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time
2016 – Cycle C
2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14; Psalm 17; 2 Thessalonians 2:16 – 3:5; Luke 20:27-38
Do you believe in the resurrection of the body?
I ask that question of you when we renew our baptismal promises on the Feast of Easter and at the baptism of infants. Do you ever reflect on what you are giving your assent to and the implications of our beliefs?
What does it mean to believe in the resurrection of the body?
First, the human body is of immeasurable value. It is created by God and therefore is very good. This is why any action against the dignity of the human body such as slavery, torture, human trafficking, pornography, mutilation, murder, abortion, physical and sexual abuse is sinful. The body is not to be disdained, considered dirty or sinful, least of all to be discarded in any manner.
Consider how often in the Eucharist we refer to the body. In the Eucharistic Prayer, “For this is my body which will be given up for you.” At the reception of Holy Communion we are asked to affirm, “The body of Christ.” In the Scriptures we are boldly confronted by Saint Paul with the words, “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it.” [1 Corinthians 12:27] and “Christ is head of the body, the church…” [Colossians 1:18].
The highest dignity afforded the human body after creation is that our incomprehensible God came among us as a human being in a human body in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. The Incarnation is the true mystery celebrated at Christmas.
This belief in the goodness and holiness of the human body has implications for our burial rites; burial rites that are undergoing major transitions and we need to ask why. The rites that accompany our members who are dying and their families and at the time of death are a journey. This journey begins when it is acknowledged that a person is dying. The Last Rites of the Church, the Sacraments of Confession and Holy Communion as Viaticum, food for the journey are celebrated to prepare a person spiritually for the embrace of God. There are prayers suggested to be prayed at the time of death, gathering in the presence of the body or at times of transferring the body to the Church or place of burial. Three principal ritual moments mark this journey: the Vigil, known as the Wake, the Funeral Mass and the Rite of Committal.
Just as we journey with family and parish from the font of Baptism to the holy table of Communion each Sunday through which we become more like Christ throughout our life of worship and service; so we keep watch with our dying in prayer and accompany their body through the various spiritual moments of the Vigil, the Eucharist and Burial. Thus the women accompany Jesus along the Way of Sorrow to his crucifixion, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea loving take his body down from the cross as Mary embraces the body of her dead Son in the Pietá, and finally Jesus’ body is wrapped in the finest of linens prepared for burial like seed in the earth. The dying and the dead mirror the dying, death and burial of Jesus.
I mentioned earlier are burial rites are undergoing vast transitions and we need to ask why. Why are Catholics no longer trusting or believe in the burial rites of our Church? More and more Catholics are not having wakes, often at the direction of the deceased, nor are they celebrating the Eucharist in which we encounter our crucified and risen Lord. Since 1963 the Church has allowed cremation as long as it is not done for reasons at odds with Christian belief but now this is often hastily and immediately done so that the body is not present for a wake, if one is held, or for the Funeral Mass whose rites honour the body, the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. The presence of the body can be disturbing only because it reminds us of our own mortality and that I too will one day die. Encountering a corpse is the only way to know someone is dead. Our family members, friends and neighbors are not here one day and then simply not present. A person died. Many people are experiencing seeing a person one moment to encountering a small black box of cremated remains the next. What might this do to a person psychologically, emotionally and spiritually? And once a body is cremated there is no going back. I first encountered a corpse in fourth grade as an altar boy. Now I come across people in their thirties and forties who have never encountered a corpse. How often are children missing from our funeral rites? Who is more afraid, the children or we adults?
- Why do we want to have “celebrations of a person’s life” which look to the past rather than Funeral Masses in the presence of the risen Christ which look forward with hope toward eternal life?
- Why do balloon releases, teddy bears and the wearing of ribbons seem to speak more to some of our people then the living Christ in the Holy Eucharist?
- Why is there a need for presenting what passes for eulogies as opportunities to tell in-house family stories and jokes to make us laugh when the human response to death is the healing power of sadness and tears?
- Why are more and more people unwilling to surrender the dead to the earth from which we came by keeping cremated remains home, wearing jewelry containing portions of cremated remains or scattering the ashes in some manner.
Burial is deeply embedded in Christian tradition because Jesus was buried and we believe in the resurrection of the body.
As I have listened to remarks made by Catholics over the years and watched our burial rites replaced with secular symbols that often contradict Catholic Christian belief there are a number of observations I have made.
- A family member, grandparent, parent may have been living out their Catholic faith but their children and grandchildren nor longer practice or believe. They often do what is most expedient for themselves because they are uncomfortable. Thus they do not afford the prayers and rites that the believing Christian is entitled to have.
- Families seem to believe that if a person, though Catholic, did not practice then the Eucharist need not be offered for them. The Eucharist reflects the belief of the Christian community in the compassion and mercy of God not solely the belief and practice of the deceased. As Father Paul Scalia preached at the funeral of his father, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, “we are praying for and giving thanks for God’s inexplicable mercy to a sinner.” Do we not all deserve such prayers?
- Some Catholics believe that death is a liberation from the ‘prison’ of the body. Thus the body can be disposed of in any manner. It has no value. In death we do not fuse with Mother Nature or the universe. We remain a “person” created by and taken up into the mystery of the living Trinity to live with God forever.
- In our society as a whole, we really do not live in community as much as we talk about it. Funerals are often semi-private family affairs because our culture has become overly individualistic and thus we no longer experience the bodies of our dead as part of the body of Christ, as part of the people of God. How sad. It is all so lonely.
I offer these thoughts as a beginning of reflections and conversations we all must have in regard to our Christian understanding of death, of our own mortality, of our fears, of hope in eternal life.