Grieving During the Holidays

Today, I was invited to give a talk at one of the local funeral homes for their clients who had lost loved ones during the last year.  I spoke about grieving during the holiday season.

A reading from the book of Revelation (22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21).

“Behold, I am coming soon. I bring with me the recompense I will give to each according to his deeds.  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”  Blessed are they who wash their robes so as to have the right to the tree of life and enter the city through its gates.

“I, Jesus, sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the root and offspring of David, the bright morning star.”  The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” Let the hearer say, “Come.” Let the one who thirsts come forward, and the one who wants it receive the gift of life-giving water.

The one who gives this testimony says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!  The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all.

Many years ago now, in the young adult period of my life, my grandmother on my father’s side passed away after a long and heartbreaking illness.  She was one of my best friends: we would sit and talk for hours about the “Old Country” and so many things.  After she died, I was in a local store around this time of year, and the store was all decked out in a homey, holiday theme.  I had gone in there just to see if I could find a gift for my mom, and I was in there maybe thirty second and found I couldn’t take it and rushed out and broke down and cried.  I was overcome by a sense of grief that came at me out of nowhere, and realized that I still had a long way to go in the grieving process.

I’m glad to be here with you tonight, and I look forward to sharing about my own experience of grieving and to share some thoughts about how grief works.  But I do want to start out by saying that I may or may not have any idea how you feel.  Grief is a rather personal thing, by which I mean that each person experiences grieving in their own way.  It has to do with who they are grieving, what their relationship with that person was like, and how long it’s been since the loss of that person took place.  But I do want to be clear about the fact that we all grieve our loved ones – whether our relationship with them was good or bad, no matter how strong or weak we are emotionally otherwise, and no matter how long it’s been since their passing.  Grief is a common human experience, which is part and parcel of the life of loving.

One of my deepest griefs came in the death of my father.  He has been gone ten years now, but it seems like I find a reason to miss him all the time.  Often on the anniversary of his death, I will gather with Mom, my sister Sharon, and my Aunt Eileen (dad’s sister), and sometimes my sister Peggy and the kids, to celebrate Mass and visit the cemetery to pray and lay some flowers, and then go out to eat.  That’s a pretty good picture of how grief works in our family, and always has.  We remember those we love, we pray, we visit the cemetery, and we celebrate them at some kind of meal, talking about them and remembering who they were for us.

Several years ago, not long after he died, I took a road trip.  I packed up early on Sunday and was out of the house by 6am, and took a 3 hour and 45 minute drive to see a friend, one of my classmates from seminary, who was a priest in the diocese of Springfield.  I visited with him all of Sunday and on Monday morning, then packed up just before noon and returned home.

I mention this because the trip itself was a bit unusual for me.  Usually, I’ll play the radio in the car the whole way down, but for most of the trip that time, I traveled in silence.  I did that because I was aware that I was missing my dad in a particular way.  I think I was missing him on this trip because Dad was great for road trips.  He’d get up before the crack of dawn, which is what I did, and he’d motor on toward whatever our destination was.  He loved to drive even long distances, and especially when I was a kid, the trip was kind of filled with expectation.  It wasn’t always fun getting up so early to leave, but it was kind of cool because it was a different experience, and as a kid, who could sleep the night before vacation anyway?

So many wonderful things continue to remind me of Dad.  I was sitting on the deck at Mom’s house a couple of weeks ago.  We had intended Dad to sit out and enjoy the deck that summer, but he died just a few days before it could be completed.  He would have loved it; he always liked sitting outside and enjoying the neighborhood and his house.  So as I sat there on that deck and prayed my breviary, I found myself especially close to Dad.

Whenever I was staying at Mom and Dad’s house overnight, and I’d get up in the morning to go shower, I would pass by his room and he would still be in bed. But he’d be awake, and would always say “good morning.” I miss those “good mornings” now.

A year or so after the deck got built, Mom and I were out staining it. When we were getting started, I was searching the garage for some painting supplies. When I got frustrated and couldn’t find what I was looking for, I said “okay Dad, where did you put it?” And the next drawer I opened had all the things I needed, right where he left them. I couldn’t help but smile and say “thanks” because Dad was the only one who knew where anything was in that garage. Not that it was messy; it was very organized, but he alone knew the scheme!

As I’ve experienced these things in the years since he died, I’ve been aware of my sense of loss that doesn’t ever seem to completely go away.  In some ways, that’s a good thing, because it reminds me how much I have loved and how much I was loved.  And through all of it, I have felt the abiding presence of God who is with us in all of our joys, and all of our sorrows.  I really feel like the danger of grieving is so miniscule compared with the danger of never having loved in our lives.

I come at grief from a couple of perspectives.  I’m Irish on dad’s side and Italian on mom’s side.  So the hands down winner for grieving is the Italian side of me.  I have relatives who have been known to throw themselves on the casket at a cemetery service, and there is generally a lot of outward grieving going on.  The Irish side of me makes all the arrangements, does what needs to be done, then never speaks of it again.  That’s a generalization, of course, but there’s some truth to all of it.

I had the opportunity to experience grieving at a fairly young age: I was just about nine years old.  Then my grandfather, Mom’s Dad, was close to death.  Mom and Dad talked with me about what was going to happen, and we all cried and hugged, and I began the strange feeling of grief when I was just nine years old.  When the time came, as is the custom on both sides of our family, all of us went to the wake and funeral, little as we were.

Some people try to shield their children from that experience.  Indeed, our overly medicated society tries to protect us all from that experience of grief, white-washing it and moving on just as soon as possible.  But how grateful I am that my parents didn’t do that to me, because grieving is a healthy experience in life.  Through that experience, I learned to love more deeply, not less.  I learned that the people in my life are signs to me of God’s love and presence in my life.  I learned that grieving is part of life, that it’s natural, that it’s something we all experience, that it’s a sign of God’s love.  We have to learn to grieve, as soon as we have the opportunity, and not to be afraid of it, because grieving is a way that we remember and love and heal and grow.

Sometimes for my yearly retreat, I will take it at Mundelein Seminary, where I went to school.  I will stay there, and spend some time reading and praying and recharging myself.  One of the things I always try to do every day when I am there is to take a walk around the grounds, which are really beautiful.  One day on my walk around the lake there, I came across an icon of Our Lady of Sorrows that had been recently erected.  It marked the spot where, in the fall of my last year in seminary, four of my brother seminarians were involved in a horrible, alcohol-related accident.  The two back-seat passengers were thrown from the car, and died.  The seminary isn’t like a big state university, it’s a small school of about 230 students, so you can imagine the impact on that small group of men.

The day it happened was, ironically, or perhaps by design, the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows.  The priest who presided at Mass that day had written his homily the night before, and spoke of Our Lady’s experience of grieving the loss of her Son Jesus.  He never changed a word of it, and of course it resonated with all of us on that day in a way it couldn’t ever have resonated on any other day.  I’ve never seen a room full of hundreds of men in tears except on that day, and let me tell you, it was striking.

The reason I bring this story up is that it is a good example to me of Christian grieving.  The icon was erected a year or so after I left the seminary, and I think it was a good way to remember Matty and Jared.  The community marked the spot where the horrible thing had taken place, consecrated the memory of those good men who had done something stupid to God who makes beauty out of the worst things possible, and commended the whole of it to the saints – in this case in the person of Our Lady of Sorrows.

We believe in the Communion of Saints, which is that wonderful “cloud of witnesses” that we hear about in the Scriptures.  In the Letter to the Hebrews (12:1), we hear this: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us.”  This cloud of witnesses, this Communion of Saints consists of all the saints that we always know about: the men and women throughout history that have been formally and canonically recognized as saints.  We believe that these people are definitely in heaven, and have the power to intercede for us through their fervent prayers.

The Communion of Saints also includes, however, those men and women who have never been formally recognized as saints.  They are our loved ones, good and holy people for the most part, who have helped us to see God in this life.  They too can intercede for us to God.  They may or may not be in heaven at this time, but are most likely headed there in any event.  They may still need to undergo the merciful purification that we call Purgatory for a time, but nonetheless, they have been on the whole witnesses of faith for us.

So as I stood there looking at the image of Our Lady of Sorrows, I thought about the Saints, especially the Blessed Virgin, and I thought about the saints, including Matty and Jared, and I prayed for those “small-s” saints with the Memorare, a prayer that I remembered was one of Matty’s favorites:

Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thine intercession was left unaided.

 Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins, my mother; to thee do I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me.

 Amen.

The Church helps us through our grieving.  In the Liturgy, we pray what we believe.  And what we believe about grief is that it’s normal, that it’s part of life, that it’s a response to the gift of life that we have been given.  We are a people who believe that there is hope in the midst of sorrow, joy in the midst of pain, resurrection that follows death, and love that survives the grave and leads us to the one who made us for himself.

In the Liturgy, the words of hope that we find lead us back to the Cross and Resurrection. Death is not the end. Love does not come to an end at the grave.  Our loved ones who have been people of faith have been made new by passing through the gates of death. Their happiness is our hope; the grace and blessing that they now share will one day be ours.

But I will acknowledge that even that glimmer of hope doesn’t erase all the pain. We are left with tears and loneliness, and that empty place at the table. But sadness and pain absolutely do not last forever, because death and sin have been ultimately defeated by the blood of Christ. We can hope in the day that our hearts will be healed, and we will be reunited with our loved ones forever, in the kingdom that knows no end.

Perhaps sometimes it feels like it would have been better not to have loved at all, because then maybe the pain wouldn’t be so great.  But deep down in our hearts, we have to know that’s not true.  Sadness and pain are temporary.  Love is eternal.  As the Church’s Vigil for the Deceased tells us, “all the ties of friendship and affection which knit us as one throughout our lives do not unravel with death.”  We know that death only separates us for a short time, and even though there is a hole in our heart, the sadness that we feel is way better than never having loved at all, never having had our loved ones in our lives at all.

Grief and loss can do a number of things to us, and that is what makes it so scary.  Some people can become fixated in their grief and can be taken by a kind of clinical depression.  For that, we must count on the expert assistance of counselors and therapists who can help us through the root causes of depression and help us to experience our grief in healthier ways.  But that doesn’t mean that everyone who experiences loss should be medicated or is even ill.  If you’re moving through grief and continue to be aware of the gifts of your relationship with those you have lost, and continue to know that God is present with you even in your pain, then you’re probably grieving in healthy ways.  But if you’re lost and have lost sight of God’s love, then you might need to speak with someone about your grief.

Jesus said in the Beatitudes “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  What makes this a particularly outrageous statement is that in biblical language, the word “blessed” here means “happy.”  So how is it that mourners are actually happy?  And the answer to that is that mourners have the wonderful experience of God’s presence in their grief.  When we grieve, we are especially close to God, close to our God who grieves when we are hurt, who may allow the bad things that happen in our lives, but never wills them, whose heart breaks whenever we sin and turn away from him.  We are made in the image and likeness of our God who is no stranger to grief, especially in the person of Jesus Christ, who grieved at the death of his friend Lazarus, who grieved with those he ministered to, and whose heart was broken when he saw the sadness of his mother at the foot of the cross.  Our God accepts grief head-on, and so should we, aware that in our grieving we are closer to God than ever, and have the benefit of his abiding presence in our pain.

The pain doesn’t just go away. There is no time when grief is “over.” I miss Dad in many ways, all the time. I miss my grandparents, and an aunt and uncle who have gone to their rest.  You miss your loved ones in much the same way. There are times when our grief overwhelms us, comes at us out of nowhere. But many are the times when our memories provide us healing and joy.

Especially as we prepare for Christmas, we mourn perhaps more intensely.  It’s hard to be joyful, to see the joy of the world around us, when we are still grieving.  It’s hard to acknowledge that for others, life just goes on.  Although, I have to say that a lot of the so-called happy people out there might just have a happy face pasted on them, because grief is so universal, and almost universally done poorly!  But Advent reminds us that there is hope. This is a reading from the book of the Prophet Isaiah (25:6-9):

On this mountain the LORD of hosts
will provide for all peoples
A feast of rich food and choice wines,
juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines.

On this mountain he will destroy
the veil that veils all peoples,
The web that is woven over all nations.

He will destroy death forever.

The Lord GOD will wipe away
the tears from all faces;
The reproach of his people he will remove
from the whole earth; for the LORD has spoken.
On that day it will be said:
“Indeed, this is our God; we looked to him, and he saved us!
This is the LORD to whom we looked;
let us rejoice and be glad that he has saved us!”

Advent reminds us God didn’t give up on a world steeped in sin and ruled by death.  Instead, he burst into our time and place with life: taking our lowly and flawed human flesh, and redeeming it, making it holy, that we would be saved and God would be glorified.  For those of us who mourn during the holiday season, the promise of Advent tells us that sadness isn’t our enduring reality, that love conquers everything, and that God has life in mind for all of us, in that kingdom where we all hope to arrive at life eternal.  That’s a hope that is so much stronger than any sadness we may experience.

When he was little, my nephew had a very close relationship with Dad, who he called “Boppy.”  In the days after Dad’s death, Danny often dreamed of Dad and said to his mom, my sister, a year or so after Dad’s death, “I’m sad because I didn’t dream of Boppy last night. I like to dream about Boppy.” Our dreams, our memories are gifts from our God who insists that we always know that we are loved. Sometimes it hurts, but ultimately it heals. Sadness is temporary. Love is eternal.

All Souls Remembrance Mass

The souls of the just are in the hand of God,
and no torment shall touch them.

Each year, the Church gives us the grace of remembering, and praying for, all of our loved ones who have gone before us, marked with the sign of faith, and all the dead whose faith is known to God alone.  The Church is great in wisdom in giving us this feast every year.  Because even though on this day, we might shed a few tears, still we will have the grace of remembering the ones who have given us life, given us wisdom, those who have been Christ to us, those who have made God’s love tangibly present in our lives.

Perhaps the deepest mystery of the human experience lies in the reality of life and death.  Everyone has, or will, experience the death of loved ones, sometimes after a long life, sometimes far too soon, always with feelings of sadness, regret, pain, grief and perhaps even anger or confusion.

That’s how grief works.  It might seem sometimes like it would have been better to live without love, but we know deep down that that’s not true.  Sadness and even death are temporary; love is eternal.  As the Church’s vigil for the deceased tells us, “all the ties of friendship and affection which knit us as one throughout our lives do not unravel with death.”  We know that death only separates us for a short time, and even though there is that hole in our heart, the sadness that we feel is way better than never having loved at all, never having had our loved ones in our lives at all.

I want to pause here and speak a little about the reality of grief.  Because, if there is one thing that we as a society do extremely poorly these days, it’s grieving.  We rush through it and hope it’s all done before we have a chance to feel any kind of pain.  That’s part and parcel of how things work in our world; we have a pill for every malady and a quick remedy for every pain, plagued with a whole host of horrifying side effects.  And what’s important to know is that this is not how the Church teaches us to grieve.  One of the most important reasons that we have All Souls Day each year is to give us the experience of remembering and grieving and healing.  If you truly love, you will truly grieve, and not turn away from it.

The Church’s Catechism (989) teaches us: “We firmly believe, and hence we hope that, just as Christ is truly risen from the dead and lives for ever, so after death the righteous will live for ever with the risen Christ and he will raise them up on the last day.”  And so we Christians never grieve as if we have no hope.  The Church’s Liturgy echoes this hope in the third Eucharistic Prayer: “There we hope to enjoy for ever the fullness of your glory, when you will wipe away every tear from our eyes.  For seeing you, our God, as you are, we shall be like you for all the ages and praise you without end, through Christ our Lord, through whom you bestow on the world all that is good.”  One of the Prefaces to the Eucharistic Prayers for the Dead makes it very clear that this hope touches our experience of grieving: “In him the hope of blessed resurrection has dawned, that those saddened by the certainty of dying might be consoled by the promise of immortality to come (Preface I for the Dead).”

And so I have some tips on grieving that I hope you will find helpful:

  1. Don’t rush into the funeral. It’s hard to make all those difficult decisions at a moment’s notice.  It’s great if you’ve talked about your wishes with your family, because it makes things easier.  But if that hasn’t happened, the family would do well to take its time and avail itself of the resources of the funeral director and the church staff so that a funeral that adequately honors the deceased and comforts the living can be prepared.
  2. Parents: please talk to your children about your funeral. Yes, that’s going to be a hard conversation.  But these days, too many young people are so disconnected from the Church and so averse to any kind of unhappiness, that they really don’t know how to grieve.  You have to help them with that.
  3. Let other people help you. Even if you can do all the preparations, you don’t have to.  Let the Church and others help you and minister to you in your time of grief.  As a priest, I presided at my father’s funeral, but one of the priests who knew him preached the homily.  I found that was very helpful to me in my own grieving.  On that day, I was a son grieving the death of his father; it would have been hard to be the preacher too.
  4. Have a wake. A lot of people try to short-cut this one because they think it will be too painful.  It will hurt a little, yes, but the comfort of others expressing their love for the deceased and for you will do so much to heal you in the time to come.
  5. Don’t be afraid to shed tears. Anyone who has ever seen me preach at some funerals of people I’ve known especially well has seen me get choked up.  Or they have seen me shed a tear when I’ve talked about my father or my grandparents in a homily.  Tears heal us, and it’s good for other people, especially your children, to see you cry.  They need to know that pain and sorrow are part of life so that they don’t feel like they’ve gone nuts when it happens to them.  You aren’t doing anyone any favors by not allowing them to see you grieve.
  6. Understand that grief doesn’t “go away.” Feelings soften with time, yes, but you will grieve your loved ones for many years to come, perhaps your whole life long.  I still grieve for my grandparents who have been gone from my life for many, many years now.  Sometimes those waves of grief will come up all of a sudden, without warning, kind of out of the blue.  And that’s okay.  Remember grief is a sign that we have loved, and loving is the most important thing we will ever do.

One of my most vivid childhood memories was when I was just about nine years old.  My grandfather on my mother’s side, who had retired just a few months earlier, was diagnosed with cancer.  There wasn’t so much that could be done about cancer in those days, so he wasn’t expected to live long.  And so one night, as the oldest of the children, Mom and Dad came to my room to talk to me about Grandpa.  That was the night I learned about life and death, sadness and grief, love and pain.  We cried a bunch, hugged a lot, and talked about how we were going to miss him.

I went to the wake and funeral with my family, because that’s what we did when a loved one died.  My parents could have shielded me from that experience in many ways, as so many parents do, but they chose not to, and I’m glad they made that decision.  Death and grief aren’t things we actively seek, but we can’t be afraid to meet them head on, girded with faith, and confident of the hope we have in Christ Jesus.

Brothers and sisters, I can’t say this strongly enough: if we don’t learn to grieve, as early as possible, we will never ever truly love.  We won’t want to invest ourselves in love because we won’t want to ever feel pain.  Jesus so deeply invested himself in love that he suffered the pain of the cross for us, so as to open for us the way to resurrection.  We have to be willing to suffer loss in order to gain anything truly glorious.

Even if the memories aren’t the best, and even if we struggle with the pain of past hurts mixed with the sorrow of grief, there is grace in grieving and remembering.  Maybe this day can be an occasion of healing, even if it’s just a little bit.  Maybe our tears, mixed with the saving Blood of Christ, can wash and purify our wounded hearts and sorrowful souls.  And certainly our prayers are heard by our God who gives us healing and brings our loved ones closer to him, purifying them of any stain of sin gathered along the journey of life.

That pain that perhaps we feel won’t all go away today.  We are left with tears and loneliness, and that empty place at the table, and that hole in our heart.  But sadness and pain absolutely do not last forever, because death and sin have been ultimately defeated by the Blood of Christ.  We can hope in the day that our hearts will be healed, and we will be reunited with our loved ones forever, with all of our hurts healed and relationships purified, in the kingdom that knows no end.

Eternal rest grant unto all of our departed loved ones, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.  May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.  Amen.

The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls)

One of my most vivid childhood memories was when I was just about nine years old.  My grandfather on my mother’s side, who had retired just a few months earlier, was diagnosed with cancer.  There wasn’t so much that could be done about cancer in those days, so he wasn’t expected to live long.  And so one night, as the oldest of the children, Mom and Dad came to my room to talk to me about Grandpa.  That was the night I learned about life and death, sadness and grief, love and pain.  We cried a bunch, hugged a lot, and talked about how we were going to miss Grandpa.

I went to the wake and funeral with my family, because that’s what we did when a loved one died.  My parents could have shielded me from that experience in many ways, but they chose not to, and I’m glad they made that decision.  Death and grief aren’t things we actively seek, but we can’t be afraid to meet them head on, girded with faith, and confident of the hope we have in Christ Jesus.

I still miss Grandpa to this very day.  He had a wonderfully silly sense of humor that never failed to make me laugh, he made a homemade ravioli that blew away anything I’ve ever eaten since, he came from Italy, learned our language and made a beautiful life for his family, and the stories of that have been an inspiration to me every day.  The same is true of all of my grandparents, all who have gone on to the Kingdom, all of whom I miss and all of whom were a great example for me.

I miss Grandma Mulcahy when I’m planting flowers in my Mom’s garden, because she did that better than anyone, and while she did, we would talk about Ireland and I would hear about life in the “Old Country.”  I miss Grandma Mastrodonato – Mom’s Mom – when I’m out in a public setting and see people doing crazy things or wearing something odd, because she always enjoyed people watching and listening to others.  I missed Dad’s Dad a lot in my job previous to seminary, because he built the monstrous printing press that was, at the time, printing a job for my customer.

And I miss Dad.  When I’m having a rough day, I just want to sit down and talk, knowing he’d listen and understand, and support me in whatever way I needed.  I missed him especially a couple of months ago when I celebrated the funeral of his best friend, one of the pillars of our neighborhood.  Together, they were two of the best, most giving men I ever knew.

And there are aunts and uncles who have gone on to the Lord, too.  All of these characters have been inspirational to me in some way, and I find that the grieving, while it may dissipate a bit, never seems to completely go away.  I don’t think it’s supposed to.  Because when we have loved much, the passing away of one we have loved leaves a hole in our life that shouldn’t go away.  That doesn’t mean that our life comes to an end: we move on, as move on we must, but always with a sense of loss, hopefully tempered with fondness for the relationship we had, hopeful of a reunion in heaven one day.

“The souls of the just are in the hand of God.”  So says the author of the book of Wisdom.  That is our prayer for our loved ones, for all the faithful departed.  Because, if we are convinced of that grace, we know they are alright, and have hope that we will be alright too.  And our Liturgy gives us words to hope on as well.  In a few moments, I will sing the words that have comforted me so many times in my sorrow: “Indeed, for your faithful, Lord, life is changed, not ended, and when this earthly dwelling turns to dust, an eternal dwelling is made ready for them in heaven.”  That is the promise derived from Jesus’ words in the Gospel: “I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live…”

On this feast of the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, I have chosen to reflect on our experience of grief, and I’ve done that because it’s an experience we all have, on some level, at some time in our lives.  I want you to know how very natural grief is, and how very blessed an experience it is.

Death is always a time of great sadness, but our Liturgy teaches us that we who believe in the Lord Jesus must never grieve as if we have no hope.  Our hope is always in Christ, the one who knows our grief and pain, and is with us in every moment of our lives, most especially when we are in pain.  The Church teaches us that if we believe in God and do his will, we can be reunited with all of our loved ones forever one day.  For the believer, the hopelessness of death is always overcome by the great hope of God’s grace.

And so we know that death only separates us from those we love for a short time, and that death never has the last word because Christ has triumphed over death.  The beginning and end of everything is Christ, and Christ is with us in our first moments, and also in our last.  He is with us in our pain and with us in our joy.  He helps us to remember our loved ones with love that continues beyond our death and beyond the grave.  Grief and loss and pain are temporary things for us.  Love is eternal, love never ends, love can never be destroyed by death, love leads us all to the great glory of the resurrection and eternal light in that kingdom where Christ has conquered everything, even death itself.

Eternal rest grant unto all of our loved ones, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.  May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.  Amen.

Good Friday of the Passion of the Lord

Today’s readings

Last night, I talked about the New Testament theme of kenosis, which is the idea of self-emptying, of pouring oneself out.  Last night, we talked about that in terms of the call to service: that Jesus himself got up from table, tied a towel around himself and took the lowest position, washing the feet of his disciples.  We reflected on how we are all called to that kind of kenosis, giving up our entitlement to see to the salvation of everyone in our life.  Today, I’d like to take another brief look at kenosis, because today we see that idea played out in its ultimate form.

I said yesterday that kenosis applied to our Lord, who, as Saint Paul wrote to the Philippians, “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.”  That’s today, of course.  It echoes what Isaiah says of the suffering servant in today’s first reading.  The suffering servant’s appearance is so marred, stricken, so infirm that we cannot bear to look at him.  It shouldn’t be that way; he is our God.  But that’s kenosis.

The reason we can’t bear to look on him, of course, because if we really looked hard enough, we know, in our heart of hearts, that the marring, the strickenness, the infirmity are all ours.  This is a dark hour.  It seems like all is lost.  That’s one of the few guarantees that this fleeting life gives to us.  We will have to bear our own cross of suffering: the illness or death of loved ones, the loss of a job, the splintering of a family, or even the shame of addictive sin.  It is our brokenness that we see in the suffering servant, our sinfulness on the son of man.  And this suffering servant is embodied by our God, Jesus Christ our Savior, who carries all of that nastiness to the cross, and hangs there before us, bleeding and dying and crying out in agony.  That’s our sin, our death, our punishment – and he bore it all for us.  He chose to pour himself out – for us.

And just when it seems like there is nothing left for him to give, when it seems like all life has been snuffed out, when it seems like death has the upper hand, the soldier thrusts his lance into the side of our Lord, and he pours himself out in one more glorious act of kenosis:  from his side pours forth the life blood and water that plants the seeds of the Church into the barren ground of the earth, guaranteeing the presence of the Lord in the world until the end of time.  Christ our God gives everything he has for us, takes away all that divides us, and performs the saving sacrifice that makes salvation possible for all people.  Our God gives up everything – everything – for love of us.

We know that the suffering and death of Jesus is not the end of the story.  In the day ahead, we will keep vigil for the Resurrection of the Lord which shatters the hold that sin and death have on us.  We are a people who eagerly yearn for the Resurrection.  We certainly hope for the great salvation that is ours, and the light and peace of God’s Kingdom.  But that’s for tomorrow.  Today we remember that that salvation was bought at a very dear price, the price of the death of our Savior, our great High Priest.  Today we look back on all of our sufferings of the past or the present, we even look ahead to those that may yet be.  We see all those sufferings up there on that cross, willingly taken there by our Saving Lord.  And as we sit here in God’s presence we know that we are never ever alone in our dark hours, that Christ has united himself to us in his suffering and death.  May we too unite ourselves to him by embracing our own suffering, and walk confidently through it with him, pass the gates of salvation, and enter one great day into God’s heavenly kingdom.

The Fifth Sunday of Lent

Today’s readings

“Lord, by now there will be a stench.”

That’s one of my favorite lines in scripture.  It begs the question I want you to pray about this week, which is, “What in your life really stinks?”  Because we have to have that stench washed away in order to really live.

If you know my preaching, you’re not going to be at all surprised about this, but I have to tell you honestly, our Gospel reading isn’t about Lazarus.  Yes, he got raised from the dead, so good for him, but he isn’t the center of action in the story.  In fact, he’s dead for most of the reading, so he doesn’t play a major part.   Our Gospel today is about Jesus, who through baptism and grace is the remedy for all that stinks in our life.

So Jesus hears that his friend Lazarus is ill.  He knows that Lazarus will die, and he knows that he will raise Lazarus up, so very much like the rest of John’s Gospel, Jesus is in full control.  He delays going to see Lazarus because it will give him the opportunity that will increase faith in the other players in the story.  So when he arrives, Lazarus has been dead four days.  That’s an important detail because it tells us that Lazarus is really, really dead.  The Jews believed that the soul of a person hung around for about three days, but after that, well, he or she was gone forever.  So if Jesus had raised Lazarus on the second day, no big deal.  If on the third day, that would have been a foreshadowing of himself.  But on the fourth day, he raises up someone who is really, really dead: someone just like us.

So just like the man who was born blind last week, we are born dead, in a way.  I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but stay with me.  We are born dead in our sins, and there is nothing we can do to raise ourselves up out of it except for the grace of God.  So the movement in our Gospel today is from life that is so mired in sin that it stinks, to life that is so free of death that burial bands and tombs cannot contain it.

During Lent, we have been journeying with our catechumens, who are now called the Elect, as they prepare to be baptized, confirmed, and receive first Holy Communion at the Easter Vigil.  Much like them, there are three groups of catechumens in today’s Gospel.  The first group is Mary and Martha, those friends of Jesus that are part of John’s Gospel a few times.  Here, the rubber meets the road in their faith.  Here, like so many of us, they have something tragic happen in their lives, and now they have to grapple with whether their faith helps them with that or not.  Mary is so troubled that she doesn’t even go out to meet the Lord until her sister tells her a white lie that Jesus was asking for her.  Both she and Martha, when they first see Jesus, complain that he should have come sooner so that he could have saved Lazarus.  But Martha has a little faith.  She says very importantly that “Even now, I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”  That’s the beginning profession of faith.  She knows that Jesus has power over life and death.  So then they have a little catechetical dialogue about life and death and eternity, and at the end of it, Martha professes that Jesus is the Son of God who was coming into the world.  The sisters move from their grief, to faith in Jesus, even before he accomplishes the miracle.

The second group of catechumens is the Apostles.  God bless them, they’re still trying to make sense of Jesus.  We can’t be too hard on them, because they’re a lot like many of us who are trying to be men and women of faith, but don’t really have all the facts right now.  “Let us also go to die with him,” Thomas says.  And they will, of course: they have to go through the cross before they see and understand Jesus fully.  We too will have to take up our own crosses before we can understand the salvation that Christ has won for us.

The third group of catechumens is the Jews.  A bunch of them are weeping with Mary, and they go with her to see Jesus.  Along the way, they complain that if he could heal the man born blind like he did in last week’s Gospel, why couldn’t he have healed Lazarus?  But seeing the miracle, they come to believe, in the very last verse of this long reading.  They are a lot like those of us who are skeptical for a long time, but see something wonderful materialize in the life of another and finally decide there’s something to this Jesus that’s worth believing in.

Key to all of these catechumens is that, in order to move to belief, they had to have some kind of stench in their lives washed away.  For Martha and Mary, they had to see past their grief.  For the Apostles, they had to get over themselves and realize that Jesus was in charge.  For the Jews, they had to get past their skepticism and let him perform miracles among them.  For all of us, on the journey of faith, some kind of stench has to be washed away, in order to come to full faith in Jesus.  And that stench is, of course, sin.  The way it gets washed away is in baptism.

So if you take away anything from today’s Liturgy, let it be this: this reading is really all about baptism, brothers and sisters in Christ.  Is it a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death and resurrection?  Well maybe a little.  But it is more about baptism.  Because baptism is a kind of death.  As Saint Paul says in our second reading today, baptism is the kind of death that gives life to our mortal bodies.  It’s hard for us to imagine that kind of thing when the baptisms we’ve seen are just a mere pouring of water over a baby’s head.  But baptism in the early church was full submerging in water while the formula was pronounced, after which they came up out of the water gasping for air.  Believe me, they got the connection of baptism with death and resurrection!

Baptism is what washes away the stench in our lives.  It does that with original sin, and if we live our baptism by participating in the sacraments, it does that with the sins of our daily life.  The sacrament of Penance is an extension in a way of the sacrament of Baptism, in which the sins of our lives are completely washed away, leaving us made new and alive in ways we couldn’t imagine.

So today, Jesus sees us dead in the flesh, stinking of our sins.  But he calls us forth in baptism, rolling away the stone of sin that keeps us from relationship with him, releasing us from the burial-bands that bind us, and calling us to new life.

So maybe in these closing days of Lent, we still have to respond to our Lord’s call to live.  Maybe you haven’t yet been to confession before Easter.  We have confessions all day on Tuesday, and you can come to any of the penance services we have.  We have school confessions at 10:45, and will be hearing confessions until around noon.  Then we have religious education family confessions at 4:45, and a parish penance serve at 7pm.  Come to any of them that fit your schedule.  If you miss that, we will have confessions after the 11:30 Mass next Sunday until all are heard.  And finally, we will have confessions a week from Tuesday, during Holy Week, at 3:00 until all are heard.  We invite you to come and have the stone rolled away and to be untied from your burial cloths.  Wherever you find yourself at this point of Lent, I urge you, don’t let Easter pass with you all bound up and sealed in the grave.  Lent ends just before Evening Prayer on Holy Thursday.  That gives us around ten and a half days to take up our Lenten resolutions anew, or even make new ones, so that we can receive new life in Christ.  Don’t spend these days in the grave.  Come out, be untied, and be let go.

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

Today’s readings

When it comes right down to it, we have a choice.  We can choose life or death, blessing or curse, the way of the Cross or the way of the world.  The choice that we make has huge consequences, eternal consequences.  The stakes are big ones, and we must choose wisely.

Many of us can probably recall some point in our lives where we had to make that choice of what we were going to do with our lives, what we wanted to be when we grew up.  That choice can be so confusing, so painful, so difficult to make.  When it finally worked for me was when I finally gave it over to God and asked that he challenge me in a big way.  That’s when I felt the call to go to seminary, which really surprised me, and I resisted it at first.  But when I gave in and let God do what he wanted in my life, when I finally decided to do what God asked me to do, the choice was much easier.  We all need that kind of guidance from the Holy Spirit, and that’s what gets us through those difficult choices in our lives.

The command from Deuteronomy is clear: “Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the LORD, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him.”  The way of the Lord is life-giving, the way of the world is death.  The way of the Lord is blessing, the way of the world is curse.  The passing pleasures of the world are nothing compared to the eternal pleasures of God’s way.  The trials we may experience in this life when we choose to follow God are passing things, and give way to great grace and peace.

Jesus asks us today to make a choice to take up our crosses and follow him.  That’s not always so appealing on a day-to-day basis.  There is great suffering in the cross.  But, as he says, what profit is there for us if we gain the whole world but lose our very selves?  Blessed, the Psalmist tells us, is the one who walks in the way of the Lord and follows not the counsel of the wicked.  May we all this day choose life, that we and our descendants might live.

The Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Baptism at Mass

Today’s readings

Today’s readings about the two widows highlight the plight of widows in the ancient world. Without a husband, they would necessarily depend on their sons to help provide for them and keep them safe, and so when these two sons died, the widow was vulnerable and very likely would become destitute. But Elijah and Jesus both recognize their plight and, without even being asked, move to right the wrongs of the situation. Restoring their sons to life, they have really restored the life also of those widows, for God is rich in mercy!

Today we celebrate the baptism of a child, and so maybe it’s hard to see how raising two people from the dead can relate to that, but I believe these readings are really all about baptism! Whenever we see death and life in the Scriptures, we really should think about holy baptism, in which our mortal bodies, dead in sin, are raised up to new life in Christ. I’ll be blessing the water of the font in a few minutes, and here are some of the words of that blessing:

May this water receive by the Holy Spirit
the grace of your Only Begotten Son,
so that human nature, created in your image
and washed clean through the Sacrament of Baptism
from all the squalor of the life of old,
may be found worthy to rise to the life of newborn children
through water and the Holy Spirit.

Just as Jesus said to the dead man in today’s Gospel, “Young man, I tell you, arise!” so he says to all who are baptized, “Be raised up, be washed clean, take possession of new life!” And so in the raising of the son of the widow of Zarephath and the son of the widow of Nain, we see the precursor of holy Baptism, in which God in his great mercy is re-creating the world anew and bringing new life to those whose bodies were dead in their mortality. Baptism is the great gift of new life that our Lord gives to his Church. It is a participation in his own death and Resurrection, in which death and sin are rendered impotent, and we are given new life.

And so, as we hear of life restored to those who were thought to be dead, it is so appropriate that you bring your child here for baptism. In this sacrament, he receives new life in Christ, who wills that all children should come to him and be made new. As you continue to bring your child here to Church for Mass and religious instruction, God will continue to pour out his mercy and grace and give him a life made new in the Holy Spirit.

Raising children these days can be difficult, as we all know. There are so many competing voices out there, so many opportunities for a young person to be tempted away from God, Church, and family. But the good news is that you aren’t expected to raise your child on your own. You are promised in this sacrament of Holy Baptism the grace that will help you in your task as parents, and as he is initiated into the Church today, you receive the promise of the Church’s help in teaching him and helping him to know God and his love.

The Psalmist today sings of this hope that we have in Christ and in this sacrament. He sings:

I will extol you, O LORD, for you drew me clear
and did not let my enemies rejoice over me.
O LORD, you brought me up from the nether world;
you preserved me from among those going down into the pit.

There is no death that can overcome our new life in Christ. Praise God for the gift of our baptism which raises us up and makes us new!