Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Funeral Mass and Easter

Today is the fifth anniversary of my father's death. The day he died was one of the saddest days of my life.  But the day of his funeral was one of the most joyful days of my life.

That may startle some of you, but it's true. My Dad's funeral Mass, celebrated right here at Christ the Redeemer, was a peak moment of faith, hope and joy for me. It's a major reason why my sorrow at his passing has been almost entirely replaced by gratitude for God's goodness.

I'm sharing this today for a reason. A couple parishioners who died in recent months did not have a funeral Mass--because they had not talked with their children about their final wishes and about our Catholic beliefs and traditions. I've been waiting ever since to talk with you about this subject, and today seems an ideal opportunity to do that.

But not just because today's my Dad's anniversary. There are more important reasons. The first is simply that we're still celebrating Easter, and I've come to realize that the funeral Mass is to a death what Easter is to Good Friday. The death of a loved one is always a sort of Calvary; it's rare indeed that we don't feel pain and grief. We know that Good Friday was a day of darkness.

Yet Easter banished that darkness--as St. John wrote at the very beginning of his Gospel "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."

Some of the same joy and relief that Mary and the disciples felt when they saw the risen Lord is offered to us in the funeral liturgy. At a funeral Mass Jesus asks us the same question he asked Mary Magdalene: "why are you weeping?" and we claim the promise of today's second reading, which says "God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

Although God will not wipe away every tear until we are united with him before his heavenly throne. Still, the funeral Mass uses these very words in the third Eucharistic prayer as the priest prays both for the deceased and those who mourn them.

As well, the first preface of Mass for the Dead proclaims that the hope of our blessed resurrection has dawned in Christ, so "that those saddened by the certainty of dying might be consoled by the promise of immortality to come."

Do you sometimes wonder what difference your faith really makes? After all, in daily life most of us look a lot like our non-Christian or non-Catholic neighbours. I think we can often see a big difference both in how we face our own death or when we are parted from a loved one. This is where our Easter faith has real and important consequences.

Who wants to come to church on Good Friday and stay home on Easter Sunday? This is what happens when the death of a faithful Catholic is not followed by a Catholic funeral. Of course it is not essential for their salvation but it is part of our proclamation of faith both within and beyond the parish community.

(If you're not convinced by my experience, do take a look at my homily from Easter Sunday, where I share the more eloquent response to a funeral Mass from a parishioner less than half my age!)

The bulletin today has a short handout on the subject of funeral planning. At the rectory and on-line there is more detailed information.  I want to encourage all parishioners, but especially those who have no adult children practicing the faith, to do what's necessary to ensure they will have a funeral Mass at the end of their days.

On another note: today is Good Shepherd Sunday, a day when we traditionally speak about vocations to the priesthood. I begin my holidays on Saturday, so Father Paul will preach about vocations at all Masses next week.  But there's one thing I'd like to say on the subject today. Some parents are reluctant to encourage a son to consider the priesthood because they worry about losing the consolation of grandchildren.

Well, that's a legitimate concern--my mother says she'd have skipped having children and gone straight to grandchildren if she'd known how much fun they are, not to mention great-grandchildren.  But consider what it meant to our family that a son could anoint his father with the oil of the sick, pray with and for the family at his beside, and eventually to preach at his funeral.

These things are among the blessings of having a priest in the family, and they too are great consolations.

It was, of course, a great challenge to preach at my father's funeral, but by a grace that still amazes me, I managed. Looking back, I think it's one of the best homilies I ever gave. The funeral was on Easter Monday, so naturally enough I made the same connection with the Easter mystery that I've talked about today. I even remarked that a priest who couldn't preach at a funeral the day after Easter should look for another line of work!

The key message, though, is one I'd like to repeat this morning. In my homily I shared my parents' secret for keeping the family close to the Church--our family did not miss Sunday Mass. Not rarely, never.

If we take the Sunday obligation seriously, a funeral Mass is a natural climax to a disciple's life, because what I’ve said about the funeral Mass today is true of every Sunday Mass. 

Every week we celebrate our Easter faith. Every Sunday we strengthen our belief that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and that Christ will come again. And every Sunday Mass prepares us for the moment when we most need to remember that one day we too will rise with him, together with those we've loved.

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