“Father, we wanted to make little necklaces with grandma’s ashes in them and wear them to the funeral. Is that OK?”
Um, where do I even begin? Where do people get these ideas? How do I as a priest, as a believer, use this funeral as an opportunity to present the true beauty of the Catholic Faith?
Funerals are strange times, and the grieving process brings out a much different side of people. Sometimes a funeral is not the time or the place to correct false notions of God, of the dead, of Heaven, of grandma… Here are some common phrases, used by good people–even faithful Catholics or Christians–that totally miss the point of Christian faith: “Heaven gained another angel today.”; “Dad is in a better place now.”; “Let us celebrate the life of this person.”
Now, it is generally not very helpful, and especially not while someone is grieving, to point out how they are wrong. At least, not very helpful before pointing out what a truer, richer, and more beautiful approach to these questions would be–to paint them a true picture of the hope that Christian faith gives us.
And that is exactly what the Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Lent gives us: the raising of Lazarus. John’s Gospel is full of what can rightly be called paintings, with words, of the truth and beauty of who Christ is and who Christ wants to be in our life.
The first thing for us to note in this painting is the complete freedom that Jesus has in front of death. He treats it as if it belongs to him. At the request of his friends Martha and Mary that Jesus come and heal His friend, Jesus responds by waiting two days, therefore letting Lazarus die. A cruel joke! Who is this man who treats death in this way?
The answer comes soon after, when Martha meets Jesus on the road:
Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise.”
Martha said to him, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.”
Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
So, the first thing we need to know in front of death is that it belongs to Jesus, that He is Lord even of death. “I am the resurrection and the life” is not only good news for Jesus but good news for us. We have seen in the previous weeks of Lent that Jesus is the water that is capable of quenching our thirst (John 4) and that Jesus is the light that overcomes all of our darkness/blindness (John 9). On the Fifth Sunday of Lent, we see that Jesus is the Life that overcomes even death.
The phrases about heaven getting another angel, or about dad being in a better place, or about a “celebration of life” put the focus completely in the wrong place: on the person who has passed away, who is dead. The Gospel is so realistic that it makes us uncomfortable: “By now there will surely be a stench! Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days.” In ourselves, we do not have eternal life, and nothing in us is “capable” of reaching Heaven.
Our only hope of reaching Heaven is to believe in Christ, which is more than just an intellectual activity. It means to hand our lives over to Him. And this handing ourselves over to Him is possible because He has handed Himself over to us, first, in Baptism and then through the life of faith, hope and love that transforms us…into Christ (read the blog post on divinization: “That we may rejoice to behold Your glory”).
Heaven is a Christological reality, and so our best bet for going to Heaven is to belong to Christ (we’ll save the question of whether it is possible to belong to Christ without being a Christian for another day…).
So what do we do with our grief? What comforting phrases do we use at funerals and when people are grieving?
One of the most comforting phrases in Scripture is also the shortest sentence: “And Jesus wept.” While we were using euphemisms to avoid looking at the reality and the injustice and the “it doesn’t belong to us” nature of death, Jesus was weeping. And His weeping was the most obvious sign of His love: “Look how He loved Lazarus.” Jesus gives us the grace to look at our grief, at our pain, at death, in the face, with all of its reality, but not without hope. Even though death remains a mystery, it is a mystery where Jesus is to be found.
The center of the picture we are painting of Christian death will always be Christ. The greatest blessing that is ours in this world is to belong to Christ, to be a Christian. What do we call those who belong to Christ? We call them saints. Attenzione: Not angels! Saints! Heaven does not gain another angel when a human being dies in Christ. Angels are creatures, and human beings are creatures. God did not become an angel, but a human being, and the angels exist to serve God and us. “Christian recognize your dignity!” as St. Leo the Great said.
One last element of our painting is the question, “What can we do now to prepare for a good death, to die with Christ?” There is a tradition of “praying for a happy death”, which is not just a pious thought. Let us listen to the words of Thomas the Apostle–that’s right, doubting Thomas–when Christ decides to go back to Jerusalem, where Lazarus died and also where the Jews want to kill Jesus: “Let us also go to die with him.”
We prepare for a good death by dying with Christ everyday. That sounds nice, but how does it translate into deeds? I will finish with a few examples:
Sometimes it feels like a little “death” to humble ourselves and ask forgiveness from someone that we have hurt. It is a “letting go”, especially when we do not know the outcome. Or, on the other side, to forgive someone even when they do not realize that they have hurt us, when they are not even sorry, can feel like “giving up” our “rights” to be angry or to hold a grudge. This is a little death. When we let go and “die”, we realize how God provides, how we find peace, light, happiness, life, through what seemed like death.
Sometimes is feels like a little “death” to do the right thing when everyone is going in the opposite directions. How will I live without the whole web of relationships, habits, and attitudes that–even though it is a lie–are “normal life” for most of the world? It can feel like “death” to make a judgment that this path is not the path of life. The open question about life “after” an addiction or a pattern of sin is a chance to see how God answers, how He provides, how He is faithful to His promise to give us life in what seems like death.
Sometimes it feels like death to go out of ourselves in charity to someone else. How will they respond? Am I getting in “over my head”? Will I be able to keep up this charitable work once I get started? Mother Teresa once said, “If I did not pick up that first man dying on the street, I would never have picked up the thousands that came after him.” Getting over that first hump was a little “death” for Mother Teresa, but what amazing life followed from that death!
The prayer for a happy death translates into throwing ourselves into all those little “deaths” to which God invites us in our concrete life. “Practice death” would probably make for a confusing bumper sticker, but it is a healthy path for us Christians, who understand death in a new way. Because of Christ, who is the Resurrection and the Life, we cannot think about death except as the place where Christ is, where He has promised to be.
And this gives us the grace to say every day, and at the end of our days, with Thomas, “Let us also go to die with Him.”