Extreme Trust

This homily was given at Our Lady of the Mountain Parish, Ashland, OR on the memorial of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, June 21, 2022. The audio is available here.


Two paths lie open before us.

One is a wide road, easy to take.

The other is the way of extreme trust: a little trail beyond a narrow, old gate, which climbs straight up into the wilderness.

Hezekiah faced this very choice, surrounded by the armies of Assyria.

Surrender was the easy way out, but it would end in ruin just as surely as choosing to stand and fight.

Instead of the broad way of cowardly compromise or stubborn self-destruction, he chose the narrow way of trust.

Taunted by the enemy, tempted to disbelieve in God’s protecting care, still he went up to the temple of the Lord and prayed: “Save us!”

And his extreme trust in God saved him and his people. 

We face the same choice whenever the enemy tempts us to take the easy way out rather than the narrow way of trust.

When bad news comes and we’re tempted to despair—do we believe the Devil, who whispers, “God doesn’t care about you. God won’t save you.”

Or do we cry out in faith, “Jesus, I trust in you! Save me!”

Today, at this Holy Mass, Jesus opens the narrow gate before us.

He says, “I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved.”

As we receive Him today in Holy Communion, we enter through the gate of trust and recommit to the little way that leads to life.

And on the last day, when we stand before Him in whom we have placed our trust, we will say with St. Paul and all the saints:

“I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.”

And Jesus will say to us, with a brother’s kindness:

“Come, you blessed of my Father. Receive the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

The Water

Come here, my friend, and speak with me:
    What did the river tell you?
When you sat alone by stream on stone,
    and the year was bright and new?

She told me of a secret name
    as she went her ancient way,
given to me from eternity
by the One who overcame.

And then, my friend, that summer morn:
    What did the ocean tell you?
When you went and gazed into her waves
    and the sky and sea were blue?

She told me of a silent place
    deep in the mind of God,
where the truth of me that I long to see
is reflected in His face.

What joy, my friend! What happened then?
    What did the fountain tell you?
When you smiled to see a little child
    gasp as the waters flew?

She told me of a memory
    which will be true again,
when days are long and full of song
and little hearts are free.

And now, old friend, at season’s end:
    What did the water tell you?
When all seemed dry, you knew not why,
    but the quiet well-spring grew?

You told me of a little road:
    it is wild and overgrown,
but life is there for one who dares
to walk where waters flow.

The Maniple of Tears

The ordinary vestments of the priest—alb, stole, cincture, chasuble—and the symbolism thereof are surely familiar to most readers of this blog. Less familiar, perhaps, may be the maniple, a vestment like a miniature stole which the priest traditionally wears upon his left forearm for the celebration of Holy Mass. Though it is enjoying a resurgence among some clergy in these happy days of restoration and recovery (one of the priests I live with uses it daily, for example), the maniple has been largely forgotten since the liturgical reforms of 1969.

I was asked the other day about the history and significance of this ancient vestment, and although I knew that it had something to do with work (it has irreverently been called the Roman “sweat rag,” used to wipe their brows in the heat of the day), I had to admit my ignorance about its origins and deeper meaning. My best guess was that it signified the labor of the priest as he offered the sacrifice of the Mass. Then I found the following illuminating passage:

This vestment … originated from the mappula, the linen handkerchief that the Roman nobility wore on their left arm to wipe away tears and sweat. It was used also to give the signal to begin the combat games in the Circus. ‘Merear, Domine, portare manipulum fletus et doloris; ut cum exsultatione recipiam mercedem laboris’, says the priest as he puts it on while vesting. ‘O Lord, may I be worthy to wear the maniple of tears and suffering, so that I may receive with joy the reward of my labors.’ And once again the battle begins against the world and its prince, in which mystically the priest sweats, cries, bleeds, and does battle in so far as he is on the Cross as the alter Christus.1

The liturgy, after all, is holy work, but it remains work. Not for nothing does St. Benedict call it the opus Dei, the work of God. This fact is reflected in the etymology of the word itself, λειτουργία (leitourgía),which can be traced to the words λαός (laós), “the people,” and ἔργον (érgon), “work.” A fitting definition of liturgy may be the work done by and on behalf of the whole people of God in adoration of their Creator and Lord.

Of course, it is Jesus Christ alone, “the high priest of our confession” (Hebrews 3:1),2 who offers truly fitting worship to God upon the altar of the Cross, where He himself is priest and victim. The ministerial priests of the New Covenant all participate in this one priesthood of Christ, offering in union with Him the one sacrifice pleasing to the Father, that is, the loving self-offering of the Son. The entire priestly people of God in turn unite their prayers and sacrifices, through and with their priest, to the eternal and infinitely meritorious prayer and sacrifice of the Risen Lord.3

What is key here is the notion of liturgy as sacrifice, namely, the self-sacrifice of the Son. We who have been baptized into Christ are one Body with Christ (cf. 1 Cor 12:13). In the liturgy, the members of the Body are mystically joined, across time and space, to the sacrifice of that Body to the Father. Each of the baptized participate “in its own special way”4 in this work—the ministerial priest as head (‘in persona Christi capitis’) and the rest of the baptized as the body (we might say ‘in persona Christi corporis’)—but all are called to unite themselves to the sacrifice, offering themselves back to the Father in union with the Son.

There is one central fact in this lofty discussion of sacrifice and labor of which we must not lose sight. As a professor of mine often reminds us seminarians, “We love only at our own cost.” This is especially true with regard to the sacred liturgy, the ultimate labor of love. Whether we speak of the priest or the people, to participate in the sacrifice requires self-offering, the truth of which must not be diminished but rather magnified by the fact that it is self-offering in union with Christ, the “pioneer of our salvation” who was made “perfect through suffering” (cf. Hebrews 2:10-11). Like the Lord, we must love at the cost of our lives, our bodies, all that we have and are. And although “in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the mass, that same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner, who once offered Himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross,”5 we must not therefore be deceived into thinking our participation can be bloodless, a merely mental assent. It is a labor of blood, sweat, and tears.

In conclusion, Gnocchi writes of the priest:

There needs to be that painful and manly interpenetration in the sacrifice, of which the maniple is the sign and instrument … If the memory of it has been lost willingly so that one can dedicate oneself to the festal banquet of a salvation lacking any sweat and toil, then there is no place for the signs of the battle to which one must consign one’s own body.”6

To that, I would add only that the “festal banquet … lacking any sweat and toil” of which he speaks (and which too many Masses since 1969 have scandalously resembled) becomes in symbol a merely ritual meal, a community celebration, stripped as it is of signs of sacrifice and therefore devoid of that inclination of priest and people alike toward God in loving self-offering, by which we glorify the Father and are transformed in Christ.

The recovery of the maniple is a small but significant step toward the sorely needed restoration of the authentic understanding of liturgy as sacrifice. Brothers, wear your maniples! Good people of God, encourage your priests to wear them, thank those who do, and let the “maniple of tears and suffering” be a reminder to unite yourselves to Christ in and with your priest in the Church’s great labor of love.


Footnotes

  1. Alessandro Gnocchi, “Traces of the Hegelian Guillotine in the Liturgical Reform,” Il Foglio, April 10, 2014, trans. Fr. Richard Cipolla, at Rorate Cæli.
  2. Revised Standard Version Bible, Ignatius Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006).
  3. Paul VI, Lumen gentium [Dogmatic Constitution on the Church] (21 November 1964), §10.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Council of Trent, Session 22, “On the Sacrifice of the Mass,” ch. 2.
  6. Gnocchi, “Traces of the Hegelian Guillotine in the Liturgical Reform.”

The Bones of the Lamb

At a recent class on the Eucharist for our adult catechumens, I was teaching about the typological symbolism of the Paschal lamb. Like the sacrificial victim of the Passover, carefully chosen from among the flocks in accord with the Lord’s ritual commandments, Jesus is the true “lamb without blemish, a male” (Ex 12:5), who is sacrificed “in the evening” (v. 6) before the Sabbath, and whose “blood shall be a sign” (v. 13) marking those who are saved: “[God] shall see the blood … and not suffer the destroyer to come into your houses and to hurt you” (v. 23).

Significantly, the lamb was not only sacrificed, but totally consumed: “They shall eat the flesh that night roasted at the fire, and unleavened bread,” the Lord commanded Moses and Aaron. “Neither shall there remain any thing of it until morning. If there be any thing left, you shall burn it with fire” (vv. 8, 10).

This mitzvah of “the Passover of the Lord” (v. 11) is fulfilled at the Lord’s Last Supper, his final celebration of the Passover with his twelve most intimate friends, during which “our Savior instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved Spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a Paschal banquet ‘in which Christ is consumed”” (CCC 1323, emphasis added; cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, 47).

The Eucharist, then, is the Paschal banquet of the New Covenant, in which Christ himself becomes our food! In place of the lamb of old, there is the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, whose flesh and blood becomes “true food and true drink” (John 6:56) for us. As that lamb was roasted whole (cf. Ex 12:9), a prefiguration of the whole burnt offerings which the Lord would later command His people to offer Him upon the altar of the Temple in Jerusalem, so the Lord becomes a ‘holocaust-offering of love’ to the Father at Calvary, a ‘whole burnt offering’ in which He gives all that He has and is, holding nothing in remainder: “Jesus crying with a loud voice, said: Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit. And saying this, he gave up the ghost” (Luke 23:46).

As we were exploring this rich symbolism and its fulfillment in Christ, one student asked: “What about the bones of the lamb?” Since the lamb had to be eaten whole, he wondered whether the Jews were commanded to break open its bones and eat the marrow, and what significance this might hold for us.

In fact, the Lord explicitly forbids the breaking of the bones of the sacrificial lamb: “In one house shall it be eaten, neither shall you carry forth of the flesh thereof out of the house, neither shall you break a bone thereof” (Exodus 12:46). This becomes another significant prefiguration of the Lord which is fulfilled in St. John’s account of the Passion: “The Jews … besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. The soldiers therefore came; and they broke the legs of the first, and of the other that was crucified with him. But after they were come to Jesus, when they saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs” (John 19:31-33).

But why the prohibition? The rabbinical commentaries on this mitzvah give us some insight. The Hebrew word עצם (‛étsem, cf. BDB, 6292), translated ‘bone’ in the Exodus quotation given above, also bears the related meanings of ‘essence’ or ‘substance.’ It refers to the irreducible core of something, the sine qua non. (The bodily analogy is clear enough; after all, without bones, you wouldn’t have much of a body!)

According to the commentary of Rabbi Maimonides, as interpreted by the Orthodox Congregation B’nai Avraham in New York City:

The essence and core of a Jew is his or her emunah, faith in G-d. On the first Pesach, the Jewish people were endowed with perfect faith. Each Pesach, the strength of our faith is renewed … Therefore, the Torah tells us that we cannot break the bone, the etzem, of the Pascal offering – not only that we may not, but that we cannot, that the faith of a Jew can never truly be broken because it is our very core.

“Don’t Break Any Bones: The Deeper Meaning to the Paschal Offering” (Brooklyn, NY: Congregation B’nai Avraham, 2015)

If, as Maimonides suggests, the mystical meaning of the unbroken bones of the lamb is the unbroken faith of the people of Israel in the covenant with the Lord, then this too is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus, High Priest and Victim of the New Covenant (cf. Hebrews 3:1). The people of Israel, after all, were by and large unfaithful to the covenant promises. “They offered sacrifice upon the tops of the mountains, and burnt incense upon the hills: under the oak, and the poplar, and the turpentine tree” (Hosea 4:13).

Jesus alone, the New Israel Incarnate, remains faithful to his final breath, taking upon himself the people’s self-imposed separation and estrangement from God—the principal and most awful consequence of sin—and making atonement for all by his perfect, loving, filial fidelity to the Father.

His cry from the depths, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk 14:34), as Pope Benedict XVI writes,

is no ordinary cry of abandonment. Jesus is praying the great psalm of suffering Israel, and so he is taking upon himself all the tribulations, not just of Israel, but of all those in this world who suffer from God’s concealment. He brings the world’s anguished cry at God’s absence before the heart of God himself. He identifies himself with all who suffer ‘under God’s darkness’; He takes their cry, their anguish upon himself – and in so doing transforms it.”

Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 2, 214

How does he transform it? In the words of my dear professor of Trinitarian theology, Dr. Margaret Turek, “sin is ‘borne away’ in being transformed or converted into its opposite. If sin is to be transformed into its opposite, then that which is the opposite of sin – filial love for God – must enter into and bear sin away.”1 This ‘filial love,’ by the way, is the very substance of the Son of God: loving confidence, trust, and obedience in the Father.

Therefore, to quote another great scholar of the atonement, Fr. Norbert Hoffmann:

“The crucified Son … occupies the ‘place of sinners’ and allows God to be ‘Father’ there … as he stands in their sinful estrangement from the Father and endures it … Here sin is fashioned as in a furnace until all that is left is the Son’s [heartache], that is, that form of love-suffering that is the exact opposite of sinful rebellion, that converts and nullifies it.”

Hoffmann, “Atonement and the Spirituality of the Sacred Heart,” in Faith in Christ and the Worship of Christ (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 170

What does it mean for us that Jesus’ bones, his substance, was unbroken to the end? It means that his faith in the Father was unshaken, and that his filial love-suffering, by which He atoned for our sin and achieved our salvation, was a truly commensurate offering to atone for the sin of the world.


Footnotes

  1. Margaret Turek, “Atonement: Soundings in Biblical, Trinitarian, and Spiritual Theology,” draft copy (Menlo Park, CA: St. Patrick’s Seminary & University, 2019), 31.

A Divine Surprise

This reflection was given after Holy Mass at St. Mary’s Parish, Eugene, OR on the Third Thursday of Advent, December 17, 2020. The audio is available here.


What are we waiting for?

This is an urgent question as we count down these last days until Christmas. The Church gives us every year this season of Advent as a time of waiting. Now, with this morning’s Mass, we have entered the last and most intense stage of the season. The Church’s longing and expectation for the coming of her Bridegroom now reaches its highest pitch. Each night at Vespers for the next eight days, the Church will cry out to the Lord under a new title, each one more perfect than the last, like a lover stammering out the praises of her beloved, though she knows no words can ever exhaust His beauty or her desire. We hear echoes of these Great Antiphons also in the Mass during these days, as in today’s Alleluia verse: “O Wisdom of our God Most High, guiding creation with power and love: come to teach us the path of knowledge!”

It is very fitting that we should begin these eight days of our most intense prayer for the coming of the Lord with this antiphon. Christ, after all, is “the power of God and the Wisdom of God,” as St. Paul teaches (1 Cor 1:24), and so God’s wisdom is not merely something intellectual or theoretical; it is incarnate; it is a person. It is a baby in a manger! Christ is the Word of the Father, spoken by the Father in an eternal silence, who nevertheless on this feast of Christmas breaks forth from eternity into the midst of time and space, into the created order, confounding the so-called wisdom of human beings with the impact of His coming. 

In his divine origins, this child is “God from God.” In his human origins, he is—what, exactly? “The son of David, the son of Abraham,” to be sure—born of the royal line, in fulfillment of all the prophecies—and yet who had ever predicted a Messiah quite like this? No one expected that God would come to save His people, not as a conquering general with armor gleaming in the sun, not even as a prince born in the royal palace to great pomp and circumstance, but in obscurity, in a manger, cold, poor, vulnerable, a baby laid in straw and wrapped in swaddling clothes. 

Even his family line is not quite what the professional prophets might have expected. In the genealogy of Jesus expounded by St. Matthew, there are Gentiles, murderers, prostitutes and adulterers, traitors, idolaters, liars and cheats—and yet from this mess, from this tangle of human brokenness and sin, springs forth the Just One, the Messiah. It’s not an accident. “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (1 Cor 3:19-20), but “the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor 1:25).

In fact, the birth and infancy of the Christ child shows us the very “pattern” of God’s wisdom, as St. Paul has it: “The foolish things of the world God hath chosen, that he may confound the wise; and the weak things of the world God hath chosen, that he may confound the strong” (1 Cor 1:27).

Rejoice, good Christian people, if that’s your story—if you are among “his poor,” the foolish and the weak ones of the world God has chosen to shame the strong and the wise. I can tell you that it’s my story. And our weakness and our foolishness, our poverty, our shame, the many ways in which we are inadequate and incapable, our own particular personal and familial histories of brokenness and sin—all of this is our glory, because it is for all this that Christ chose us and made us His own! When He took on a human nature, after all, He didn’t take on an imaginary, ideal humanity but a broken and a lowly humanity, born of a poor and humble family. That miserable humanity, just like yours and mine, so “attracted God’s mercy” (St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, Letter 298) that He united it to Himself in the marriage of Christmas Day.

And He who shares a human origin with each one of us comes now into the midst of our messy lives to share with us His own divine origin, in the perfect and eternal love of the heart of God. Not to deny our human origins. Not to replace them. But to redeem and renew them, to bring into the midst of it all a new kind of life from above, a breath of heavenly air: to live the life of God.

Friends, that is the promise of Christmas. That is what we, the Church, await with such urgent longing that our hearts can hardly contain it! And the “path of knowledge” we cry out for Him to come and teach us is the way to live our human life, here and now, in accord with the new kind of life He offers, according to the pattern of divine Wisdom shown us by the infant God: not noise, but silence; not self-promotion, but hiddenness; not self-indulgence, but poverty; not cynicism, but vulnerability; not guardedness, but weakness. 

It is not easy to walk this path in Advent 2020. In fact, it is foolishness to the world, perhaps more so now than in any other age. But we must choose with determination to follow this foolish Wisdom of God, for the gift He promises to those who live this way surpasses all understanding.

And so I ask you again, dear friends of God: What are you waiting for this Christmas? A vacation? A visit with loved ones? A special gift? I hope you have all that and more. But above all, I pray you receive the gift our infant King so longs to give you: new life; a new beginning in the midst of your human existence; a divine surprise. 

“O Wisdom, who came from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end and ordering all things mightily and sweetly: come, and teach us the way of prudence.”

Theological Reflection: Parish Devotional Life

The rosary has held a very special place in my own devotional life since even before I was a Catholic. Early in the journey of my conversion, I heard a passionate Dominican sermon on the miracles of the rosary and enrolled in the Confraternity of the Rosary that very day, a year or more before I was received into the Church! In the years before entering seminary, I prayed the rosary fervently before and after daily Mass to obtain the grace of clarity in my vocational discernment. In fact, I attribute all the graces of my conversion and my vocation to Our Lady’s intercession. Although there was a time in college seminary that I was inconsistent in praying the rosary, I always returned to it in difficult moments, times of testing and turmoil. One day, when I saw a young man walking hand in hand with his girlfriend down the hill from Mount Angel Abbey and felt some pangs of loneliness and self-pity, I was deeply consoled by the thought that I was holding Mary’s hand as I walked praying her rosary. Another time, when my mom was suddenly hospitalized due to a serious illness and I was hundreds of miles away, feeling powerless and afraid, I felt capable of no other prayer than the continuous repetition of the rosary, which got me through long, dark hours until I heard the good news that she was okay.

I could go on and on with stories of the consolation and strength Our Lady’s rosary has been to me over the years. As I was reflecting on the parish devotional life here at St. Mary’s, however, I was struck by the many and varied ways in which the rosary has brought people together here and given the gifts of peace, hope and communion in such different circumstances. On several occasions, I have had the privilege of leading the rosary before a funeral. Sometimes the gathering of the family before the funeral is tearful, sometimes raucous and noisy, but in both cases I have noticed how this communal prayer, with its soothing repetition like the advancing tide, allows people to settle into a spirit of stillness and peace. It is a perfect preparation for the funeral liturgy. On another occasion, I helped lead the rosary at a pro-life rally, kicking off the Forty Days for Life campaign on the sidewalk outside our local Planned Parenthood clinic. Here again I was struck by the contrast: the rosary made of us an oasis of peace in a place of ugliness, violence, noise and fury. I led a rosary for discernment at the first meeting of our parish priestly discernment group, handing on the great gift I had received in my own early discernment. I have prayed the rosary every week at our parish holy hours, the decades alternating between English, Spanish, and Latin, and I imagine the delight it must bring Our Lady to receive our grateful praises and prayers in our different tongues, like a bouquet of different kinds of flowers bound together by our common love for her and her Son. I think, too, of the decades I prayed in a hospital room with a parishioner who wept, saying how long it had been since she had prayed with another person and what a comfort this familiar prayer was. I knew exactly what she meant. 

Why is the rosary so effective in such vastly different situations, for people of such different cultures, backgrounds and even spiritualities and temperaments, at bringing peace, stillness, comfort, clarity, and countless other spiritual gifts besides? The liturgical handbook of the Archdiocese remarks that “foremost among the Marian devotions is the rosary, which is a kind of compendium of the Gospel and, as such, it is a profoundly Christian devotion that helps the faithful to contemplate the mysteries of the life of Jesus Christ through the eyes of the Virgin Mary.”1 The key, I believe, is that this devotion leads naturally to contemplation. As Saint John Paul the Great eloquently writes, “with the Rosary, the Christian people [are] led to contemplate the beauty on the face of Christ and to experience the depths of his love … The Rosary belongs among the finest and most praiseworthy traditions of Christian contemplation.”2 To reach this end, it must of course be truly prayed and not merely recited, as Pope St. Paul VI instructs us:

Without contemplation, the Rosary is a body without a soul, and its recitation runs the risk of becoming a mechanical repetition of formulas, in violation of the admonition of Christ: ‘In praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think they will be heard for their many words’ (Mt 6:7). By its nature the recitation of the Rosary calls for a quiet rhythm and a lingering pace, helping the individual to meditate on the mysteries of the Lord’s life as seen through the eyes of her who was closest to the Lord.3

When the rosary is in fact prayed in this way, it leads to a deep interior stillness before the face of Christ and alongside Mary, His mother and ours. In fact, to quote Pope St. John Paul II one final time, “the Rosary mystically transports us to Mary’s side as she is busy watching over the human growth of Christ in the home of Nazareth. This enables her to train us and to mold us with the same care, until Christ is ‘fully formed’ in us (cf. Gal 4:19).”4 Like all authentically Christian contemplative prayer, then, the prayer of the rosary does not merely achieve a fleeting psychic state of tranquility; it accomplishes our ever deeper conformity to and union with Jesus Christ.

In spite of the long and profound personal history with the rosary I mentioned above, there was a time when I was first discovering the riches of contemplative prayer that I felt I had “outgrown” the rosary, in favor of purely mental prayer. I was annoyed at parishes where the rosary was prayed before or after Mass, since I preferred to spend that time in the prayer of quiet, preparing for Mass or making my thanksgiving. After more experience with both contemplative prayer and pastoral ministry, and studying at the feet of such great masters, I now see the rosary more clearly as a truly indispensable treasure of our Roman Catholic tradition given to us by the Mother of God herself for our sanctification. As a pastor, therefore, I want to promote the prayer of the rosary among parish groups, at Holy Hours, during the novenas for Marian feast days, on regular processions (I know of one pastor who holds monthly “rosary walks” around his parish boundaries) and on as many other occasions as possible. The Liturgical Handbook notes that “the Catholic faithful enjoy the right to pray the rosary on most occasions,”5 and as a shepherd I intend to zealously guard and promote that right.


Footnotes

  1. Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook (Portland, OR: Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, 2018), 18.6.6.
  2. Pope St. John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae (16 October 2002), 1, 5.
  3. Pope St. Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultus (2 February 1974), 47.
  4. John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 15.
  5. ALH, 14.8.6.

Rorate Cæli

S. Andreæ Apóstoli.

Lay your yoke upon me like the dewfall,
Gentle Lord, which does not bend the branches,
nor even crush the smallest of the small,
but of leaf and twig alike enhances
the dignity of being what You made,
adorned—not burdened—by the gracious weight
of life you give to never end nor fade!
Drop down, you heavens, dew!—O let it sate
at last this thirst You wrote into the heart
of man, O let it gild the wild woods
that strive for You from valleys far apart—
O clothe all in Your grace and call it good!
If man You made for life, O Father, then
pour out your life in us and make us men.

Magnum Mysterium

Dominica I Adventus.

Framed by the barren branches, winter-clad
in careless air and shadows, stands the queen
arrayed in gold. (What majesty she had!—
filled with a light, a life, a child unseen!)
Ripe fruit of sterile tree, thou Lady, born
to grey-haired hope made foolish by long years
of patient expectation, now adorned
with glory like the Sun, Who drew so near
to thee as to suffuse thy being all
with radiance of His light! Thou art the moon
and He the Sun; thou crowned among the halls
of Heaven, He their Maker!—yet but soon,
He whom all ages called “wholly other”
shall be born of thee, and call thee “Mother.”

Theological Reflection: Funerals

Last month, I had the honor of assisting at two funeral liturgies only days apart. That in itself would not be so unusual; we have had many funerals since I arrived here in August. What makes this particular sequence of funerals stand out in my memory is the vastly different circumstances of the deceased. The first was a boy less than six months old whose parents awoke one morning to find him lying dead in his crib. The family were heartbroken, the parents inconsolable. Since no one in the family felt up to the task of reading during that liturgy, I proclaimed these words from the Wisdom of Solomon, which have remained in my heart:

The righteous one, though he die early, shall be at rest. For the age that is honorable comes not with the passing of time, nor can it be measured in terms of years … The one who pleased God was loved, living among sinners, was transported—snatched away … Having become perfect in a short while, he reached the fullness of a long career; for his soul was pleasing to the LORD, therefore he sped him out of the midst of wickedness.1

Wisdom 4:7-14

My pastor admitted during his homily that he did not have the words to take away their pain, when all they wanted was to hold their child in their arms again. All that he could give them was the assurance that God is greater than death. This he indeed proclaimed, and then fell silent. The last thing I remember is standing beside him for a long time in silence as the men and boys took turns, one by one, shoveling dirt into his open grave.

The second funeral was for a woman who had just surpassed her hundredth birthday. Our church was packed with her relatives, down to the fifth generation of great-great-grandchildren, and they all congregated afterwards in front of the church, the kids eating cookies and playing, the adults swapping stories amid hugs and tearful smiles.

It would be hard to imagine two more different funerals! Though the liturgy was substantially the same, the fundamental difference is that the family in the latter case had many years to spend with the deceased. They felt that she had lived a long life and a good one. In the former, they felt that their child’s life had been cut short almost before it had begun; they mourned not only for him but for the future they had hoped to see, the years and memories that would never be. What can soothe a grief as enormous as that? I am sure my pastor was right in admitting that words could never be enough. As he also told me as we left the cemetery, the family would probably not remember the words we had said at all. They would, however, remember that we were there, and that we stayed.

It is only natural that the funeral of a hundred year old mother of many generations would be celebrated with more festivity, with sorrow interpenetrated with joy and laughter, than the unexpected, inconceivable funeral of a little baby. Yet the wisdom of that first reading is profound. Though they may not have been capable of receiving it then, I hope that the family do remember those words, for there is consolation and power in them: “The age that is honorable comes not with the passing of time, nor can it be measured in terms of years. Rather, understanding passes for gray hair, and an unsullied life is the attainment of old age” (Wis 4:8-9).

The Lord measures out a span of days for each one of us—“seventy is the sum of our years, or eighty, if we are strong; most of them are toil and sorrow; they pass quickly, and we are gone” (Ps 90:10). When a life comes to an end, our human tendency is to judge it by its length, by their accomplishments, by the number of their descendants and the memories they made with those who survive them. We mourn the more bitterly for those who die early with none of these. But our prayer must be that of the Psalmist: “Teach us to count our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart” (Ps 90:12). Counting our days aright means, in part, judging the real value of our human lives from God’s perspective, who is unimpressed by our accomplishments or length of days. The real value of a life is that the one who lived was a child of God, His beloved, who loved Him in return as best they could. Thus our Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook teaches that

Holy Mother Church, who … generates to a new and immortal life the children who are born to her in Baptism, and nourishes them by the sacraments during their earthly pilgrimage, accompanies each of them at his journey’s end, in order to surrender him ‘into the Father’s hands.’ She offers to the Father, in Christ, the child of his grace, and she commits to the earth, in hope, the seed of the body that will rise in glory.2

When we die, all that matters is that the one who came from God is returning to Him. We, the Church, pray that the holy angels speed them on their way, that the Father receives them with joy, and that, “even if final purifications are still necessary in order to be clothed with the nuptial garment of eternal joy and salvation,”3 they will soon partake in the wedding feast of the Lamb, where we hope to be reunited with them for all eternity.

As a priest, I hope to follow my pastor’s good example of keeping silent watch in moments of such extreme suffering and tribulation, being present with those who are in suffering and having the self-awareness to realize that many words will do more harm than good. At the same time, I hope to follow his example in simply and boldly announcing our faith that God is greater than death. And I hope to keep close to my heart and at the forefront of my mind—and to share it with those who grieve the loss of a loved one, when the time is right—that the value of each of our lives is determined not by our length of days or any of our accomplishments, but by the infinite love of God.


Footnotes

  1. New American Bible, Revised Edition (Washington, DC: Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, 2010).
  2. Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook (Portland, OR: Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, 2018), 14.1.1.
  3. ALH, 14.1.2.