Today’s readings: Isaiah 25:6-9; I Corinthians 15:51-57; John 6:37-40
This past Sunday and Monday, I took a couple of days off. 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 is 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 or my iPod in the car the whole way down, but for most of the trip this time, I traveled in silence. I did that because I was aware that I was missing my dad in a special way. He died a year ago in May, and I’ve been missing him a lot. But I think I was missing him in a special way 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 new 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.
As I’ve experienced these things over the last several weeks, I’ve been aware of my sense of loss t hat 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’ve reflected on my experience of grief this past week. I was with some of my priest friends who form a kind of support group for each other earlier in the week. We were praying about this feast of All Souls, and talking about our experience of loss and grief. I shared what came to me in that moment, and that was a profound sense of gratitude to my parents for having given me the opportunity to learn to grieve when I was little. I remember when 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. 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.
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.
On this feast of the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, I could reflect on the difference between All Saints Day and All Souls Day. But you could read that in the bulletin. I could tell you all about purgatory and the need for us to pray for the dead. But there’s another time and place for that too, I think. Instead, 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.
We will hear later in this Liturgy that for those who believe in Christ, life is changed, not ended. Because Jesus has died and risen from the dead to pay the price for our sins, we have been given the great gift of salvation. 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.