Sunday, November 2, 2008

Day of the Dead

This is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him on the last day (John 6:40). We have been wonderfully and gloriously made to live life eternally. Death, although it is part of the universal human experience, was really not part of the divine plan for the human race. Rather death entered through sin- through alienation from God who is Life and who gives Life. And it is through the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus that we have received the eternal life willed by the Father in heaven.

Today we remember those who have died to this world. Most of them we do not know their names. Others are very close to us and their passing has caused us a lot of sorrow. It is true, we say that these loved ones are in a better place, and that we are glad that they are no longer suffering (which all may be true). But often times we say these things as we fight back the tears and try to come to terms with the pain of our loss. Once at a funeral of an older fellow his granddaughter wanted to sing All is well with my soul, which she did, while weeping copiously the whole time- all was not well with her soul- nor should it have been. But even if it causes a bit of pain, today is a day which we rightly should recall all those who have died and consider their plight in light of our Christian faith.

One of the stages of grief that everyone who has a loss goes through has been identified as denial. You know what I am talking about. When someone dies, we say I cannot believe it has really happened. Or noooooooo! (Remember how the Apostles did not want to think about the illness or death of Lazarus, because they were a afraid.) The reaction of denial is perfectly normal. It helps us to confront the reality of loss and change at a rate which we can more easily handle. Denial of death only becomes a problem when a person gets stuck in it (like when someone has the clocks in their house set at the time of death of their beloved).

Unfortunately, our world is largely stuck in a denial of the reality of death. For example, most of us will do almost anything to hide our age. Some people dye their hair, or use special wrinkle removing creams, or have treatments to appear younger. One of my friends loved to celebrate his birthday, but he was always deaf when someone asked his age (he lived to be 101). We use slang to avoid saying the word “death” : kick the bucket, buy the farm, shuffle off, cross the river, punch the ticket, push up daisies, etc...

In some instances, the denial is deeply entrenched and to expose it is risky. For example, when a person begins to talk about the death of the unborn in abortion, many people immediately shut their ears and hearts. (A few weeks ago I even received some negative email, although most was supportive.) Some will say it is a political issue that should not be discussed at church. Others will say it is a moral issue that should not be discussed in the political realm. They say that because they do not want to discuss the deaths of others at all. A terrible consequence of this widespread denial is that when a person loses their child to miscarriage, or when they realize that they child they aborted was in fact their own son or daughter, they often do not know how to express their grief. If anyone responding appropriately runs the risk of ending their own denial, if they have it.

In the circumstance of almost any death, not just of a child, the mourners are interiorly conflicted. Not just because of the normal tumult of emotion, but also because of the feeling of isolation even in the midst of others. People sometimes tell others not to cry. Or the mourner wonders why they still feel sorrowful after several weeks. Grieving takes years. That does not mean that we are supposed to be incapacitated for years, but rather that we should acknowledge that the grieving process can take a long time. And we cannot go through the process until we acknowledge that death has indeed happened. Then we can go forward, even though it is into darkness and unknowing.

Remembering the dead helps us through this process. Even though we might remember things that we would like to forget, by recalling the passing of those whom we love, our fear of abandonment can be lessened. Our Christian faith is particularly helpful in these times of testing and pain. We believe that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, completely God, suffered and died for us. Though God did not make death, He freely embraced it for our sake. The death of Jesus on the Cross gave our death and the deaths of our loved ones a new meaning. In the book of Wisdom it says: They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead; and their passing away was thought an affliction and their going forth from us, utter destruction. Although death appears to be the end, although it seems to be alienation from the living, in fact death now is the means to entering into a new kind of life with God.

Another aspect of our remembering that can be painful is to recall the defects of the one who has passed. How did they stand before God? We do not know. But one thing that we can do is pray for them. I have heard from so many people that funerals are for the living. But I disagree. And when I die, I want all of you to pray for me. Don’t go around saying, Oh, he must be in heaven because he is a priest. No! Get on your knees and ask God to have mercy on me! That is one of the beauties of the Catholic faith. Even though someone has died, we can still pray for them, and God will listen. God’s power to convert and to heal us is not limited to this world and this life. He can do all things and He can make all things right even after our death.

If we were to read the 12th chapter of Second Maccabees, Judas Macabbeus arranged for the soldiers who had died to be remembered in prayer, that God would forgive them their sins. The author praises this action as being proof of his faith in the resurrection (see 2 Maccabees 12: 43-44). If there were no mercy available after death, why would Jesus have raised Lazarus or the son of the widow of Nain? Why would He have stayed in the tomb three days? Why would Jesus have descended to the dead as we profess in the Apostles Creed? For what purpose except to free those in the bounds of death. And if He could free them way back then, why not now?

In remembering the dead and lifting them up in prayer, we acknowledge that in God, all are alive. In meditating on the Passion of our Lord, we profess that God understands and that we are not alone. In praying for the dead, we show our faith that God’s love endures forever and His mercy is from age to age. In seeking God’s mercy for others, we expand our capacity to receive it ourselves.

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