Thursday, April 26, 2018

Memorial Mass

Wis 3:1-6,9
1 Cor 15:20-26
Jn 12:23-28

The sonnet begins with a challenge directed at death as if it were a person:

"Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so . . . "

The sonnet ends ten short lines later with gentle reassurance and a sense of hope directed to those who are dying and to those who survive and must go on.

"One short sleep past, we wake eternally, 
And death shall be no more, death, thou shalt die."

In his tenth holy sonnet, the 17thcentury Anglican priest and poet John Donne, tells the personification of death that he thinks very little of its reputation or its power. 

We heard in Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, "For as by a man came death by a man came also the resurrection.  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive."

A few verses later we read Paul's declaration, "The last enemy to be destroyed is death."  It was these words that allowed Donne to end his sonnet as he did, 

"And death shall be no more, 
Death thou shalt die." 

A quiet moment.  A slight pause.  And it is done.

In an especial way during the Easter season, we are reminded of the significance of Jesus' life, the destruction of death and its power. Death no longer holds sway over us. Through his loving self-surrender Jesus vanquished the hold that death exerted over us for eons. He destroyed it so that it never can, and never will, exert that power again. 

We heard in the Gospel just proclaimed: "Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be." This is our task and our mandate, to serve and follow Jesus, who freed us from the thrall of death. Only because of Jesus' saving act could Donne admonish: "Death, be not proud."

Jesus victory over death does not mean that we will not die.  Dying can never be avoided. Even though we can sometimes postpone it for many years, we all die. But, we do not have to submit to death. We never have to submit to the nihilism of the pseudo-sophisticate who sniffs that death is nothing more than returning to the food chain.  That is true only if one chooses to consciously and intentionally reject the promise of Jesus' redeeming act. That act of rejection requires great effort and determination. 

There are many challenges for those of us who must go on after the death of someone we love. The greatest of those challenges is grieving. Grief is never easy. It is never quick. Grief never reaches so-called 'closure,' one of the most bizarre and phony concepts ever forced down the throats of a gullible public. 

The first reading reinforces Donne's sonnet when it proclaims:  "The souls of the just are in the hands of God and no torment shall touch them."

We heard in the Gospel that was just proclaimed:  "Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be."  This is our task, this is our mandate, to serve and follow Jesus, who freed us from the thrall of death.  Only because of Jesus' saving act could Donne admonish: "Death, be not proud."

The words of the readings are a source of some consolation.  But that consolation can only be partial. The words can never fully ease the pain of the broken hearted, they cannot answer the questions of those who wonder how to go on after the death of a spouse, a child, a parent, sibling, or friend.  

Grieving is the most solitary and isolating of all human experiences.  Grief is the great leveler.  It brings both the peasant and the dictator to his knees in pain, rage, and sorrow.  Grieving sets off an insatiable hunger in the poor man as well as in the wealthy gourmand.  Grief brings all of us to our knees, sometimes in prayer and oftentimes, perhaps most often, in pain.  It is an uncharted course through a wide variety of emotions.  

No writer ever described the grief better than C.S. Lewis did in the opening sentence of the small diary he kept after his wife's death. It is titled, A Grief Observed.  “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.  I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid.  The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning." 

Grieving takes time. It takes energy.  It takes more than the week or two, or the maximum couple of months, that American society insists it should.  With time a loved one's death becomes part of a new reality.  Coming to that new reality compels new ways of living for all who survive.  

As we grieve we are called to pray:

Requiem aeternam 
dona eis, Domine, 
et lux perpetua luceat eis. 
Requiescant in pace. 

"Eternal rest 
grant unto them O Lord, 
and let perpetual light shine upon them. 
May their souls and the souls of the faithful departed
rest in peace."



In about 12 hours I will give this homily at the monthly memorial Mass for those who died the previous month at St. Patrick Manor, a 325 bed nursing home run by the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm.  It is always a difficult task.  Many recently bereaved family members are in attendance.  I'm not scheduled for Mass on Sunday.  After the past week of massive amounts of travel I will appreciate the time off.  

Photos were taken halfway up Mt. Equinox in Arlington, VT.  Still winter up there.  The background for the first and third shots is ice on Lake Madeleine.  I suspect it is all gone as a result of the warm temps on Monday and a lot of rain over the next two days; including during the drive home.  

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

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