The Thirty – Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
2017 – Cycle A
Wisdom 6:12-16; Psalm 63; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew: 1-13
We gather in the month of November as the earth turns away from the sun in the northern hemisphere. Darkness is setting in and the Church turns to remember her dead.
In this vein, I have to ask, why are many Catholics no longer burying their dead according to funeral rites of our Catholic Church? The same is occurring among Catholics preparing their own burial rites prior to their death. This is an unusual development among contemporary people of our culture, since the burial of the dead has been considered one of the most sacred acts among humans from the dawn of history and was always the responsibility of the community. I’ve also observed the following:
- People for whom there is no obituary or death notice, no wake or Funeral Mass; just immediate family for a burial at which the Christian community is absent. In some cases no one outside the family knows the person died.
- Though for certain reasons the church allows cremation, why the rise in cremation rather than waking a body and bringing our dead to church for a Funeral Mass as the church prefers by ancient custom? Though there may be financial or transportation issues, but my impression is that the body is not deemed sacred but disposable like so many people in our society from the unborn, prisoners, the elderly and terminally ill. The body is not a container for the soul. In our Christian understanding we are incarnate beings, a oneness of body and soul.
- Why are people postponing weeks, even months, to bury their dead? Why does death no longer give us pause? Why do we not allow death to infringe on our lives?
- Why are pictures of nature rather than Jesus and the saints being chosen for memorial cards? And why are poems in which the dead tell the living not to mourn or weep chosen rather than Christian prayers such as, “Eternal rest…”, the “Hail Mary”, or one of the Psalms or a verse from the Gospels?
Are we Catholics denying the presence of death and the subsequent feelings of grief, pain and sadness that are part of the human situation? Even Jesus cried over the death of his friend, Lazarus. In our tradition, we have the mournful image of the Pietà, Mary, weeping, holding the dead body of her Son. I expect it all began with Eve holding her son, Abel. Why the changes among Catholics over the recent last 50 years in our approach to death, the human body and grief.
We Catholics believe the human body, created in the image and likeness of God, is sacred and is the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. This belief is reflected in our funeral rites through which the church in her members and ministers accompanies a family through various stages and times of prayer in this initial period of sadness, bewilderment and grief.
We treat the body with respect and dignity. The Wake or Vigil is an opportunity for mourners to express their sadness and to find strength through faith in Christ supported by the Christian community. The Funeral Mass, the central act of prayer and our highest form of worship, gathers the family with the community in the presence of the body of our dead to give praise and thanks to God for Christ’s victory over sin and death, to commend our dead to God’s tender mercy and compassion, and to seek strength in the proclamation of Jesus death and resurrection. The Rite of Committal concludes the funeral rites, in which like Jesus, we bury our dead in the ground like seed. In the grave, our dead await the Second Coming of Christ and the glory of the resurrection. Many people and families are omitting the most important parts of the journey the wake and Funeral Mass. Why?
The funeral rites of the Catholic Church, The Vigil or Wake, the Funeral Mass and the Rite of Committal, have not changed – but society, and seemingly Catholic have. Over the decades from my observations as a priest it is our culture that has affected the understandings, views and burial practices of Catholic Christians rather then we making the difference by confirming the dignity of the human being, even in death. I expect some of this is due to the fact that fewer Catholics, our family members, though baptized, have not been formed in the faith. Fewer and fewer people know the Lord’s Prayer. The screens of photos in funerals homes draw more attention more than the people visiting and some scatter the cremated remains of their dead in favourite places.
What I hear consistently today is that people want celebrations of the life. Celebrations of the life of the deceased – not the life of Jesus. This is reflected in an emphasis on eulogies about the dead rather than the message of hope proclaimed in the Gospel; the emphasis on what hymns and readings the deceased liked rather than what readings and hymns might express the faith of the living. Funerals for many people have become canonizations; everyone is declared to be in heaven. Really? If that be so, why do we pray for the dead? If they are with God, the dead have no need for our prayers. Though we may grasp for language to express our faith and feelings; words have meaning. In praying for the dead, as we do at every Mass, we acknowledge that the journey toward God may not as yet be complete in Jesus. Catholic Christianity is the only church that believes in purgatory. Made light of by comedians and often misunderstood by Catholics themselves; the belief in purgatory is a positive way of saying that death is not the end of the journey. We continue to move toward God. Remember we will all die sinners and will be in need of God’s mercy and the prayers of the Church.
Our culture does not look to Christ, despite the thin veneer of Christianity that still lingers in our society. For a people to have hope, you do not look backward, you look forward toward what is promised. And for Christians that looking forward is the hope of eternal life in Jesus Christ.
So the point of a Catholic Funeral?
Though we have a deep desire to remember our dead and have a need to say “good-bye” the point of a Catholic Funeral is fourfold:
- …to worship God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
- …to give thanks to God for the compassion and mercy shown to us through Jesus Christ,
- … to renew our own faith at a very sad, difficult and painful time in our lives,
- …and to pray for the person who died.
As Paul reminds us, “We do not want you to… grieve like the rest, who have no hope. Christians grieve. It is how we grieve that is different from the society around us. We grieve in hope grounded in Jesus Christ. “For, as Paul continues”, if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”
At the heart of the Catholic funeral rites is hope for us and our dead. With so much death in our world today, do we not all need a message of hope?