Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
June 5, 2016
Someone recently asked me what brought me the greatest joy as a parish priest. I did not hesitate in responding, explaining that there were far too many happy, fulfilling, and rewarding experiences to do justice to that question. But, for some reason, it kept rattling around in my mind. Later in our conversation, I found both the opportunity as well as what seems to me to have been a proper answer. The privilege to be at the deathbed of an elder of the community, for me anyway, was the most joy-filled experience of pastoral ministry.
Giving witness to the earthly life of a Christian disciple coming full circle is extraordinarily profound. Certainly there are tears as an important chapter in the life of a family, as well as a faith community, comes to an end. But, at the same time, there is an overwhelming sense of excitement, wonder, and awe. It feels as if, when the heavens opened to accept the eternal spirit of the person, the glory of God rains down on those keeping vigil…showering those left behind with a sense of peace…and even joy!
Then, there was a follow-up question. “What was the hardest part of being a parish priest?”
In spite of the fact that “the job” brings with it a long litany of stress, challenges, troubles, and sorrow…I did not hesitate even a second in replying to this question. The hardest thing that I experienced while serving as the pastor of a parish was presiding at the funeral Mass for a child. The deep sense of loss weighs heavily on everyone in the church, making it almost impossible to breathe. To have to call the community to prayer and find “The Good News” in the face of unimaginable tragedy is definitely a heavy task. Still, that somber responsibility helps me to stand in the sandals of both Elijah as well as Jesus…both having to look into the agonized face of a widow who had lost her son. How could they not implore God to restore life to the lifeless body?
Yes! Presiding at the funeral Mass of a young person is indeed the hardest thing that I did as a parish priest, and even reading the passages the Church gives us as we continue our journey through Ordinary Time brings back painful memories of those occasions when I needed to do just that…celebrate a life that had ended far too soon…and under the most tragic of circumstances. Nevertheless, there was one occasion in particular when the “sorrowful mystery” of a child’s death was tempered by the “glorious mystery” reflected in the final loving gesture of the parent.
The community response to the tragedy was unbelievable. The church was overflowing. All were ushered into the worship space leaving only the bereaved parents, the funeral director, and myself in the privacy of the narthex. I raised an urgent prayer for the right words to help the parents through what was to come, but, in fact, it was the mother of the child who helped me move forward into the funeral Mass with a sense of peace.
She asked the funeral director to open the lower half of the casket. He looked to me for guidance. Incapable of denying her any request, I nodded that he should oblige her. When the entire earthly body of this beautiful young person was revealed, the grieving mother calmly stepped forward. Beginning at her child’s head and moving all the way down to the feet, she gently and lovingly caressed the entire earthly body, the body that she had used her own body to give life to. When she had completed this profound expression of love, she stood, turned towards her husband and myself, and, with a radiant look on her face, indicated that she was ready to continue with the liturgy.
I did not ask her what motivated this dramatic expression of love. It was too personal. Neither did I tell her what passed through my mind as she caressed her child for the last time. She was, for me, a perfect image of the unconditional compassion, mercy, and love with which our God celebrates the passage of the faithful from time into eternity.
For me, that gesture offered an image of what happened in Zarephath when Elijah prayed over the lifeless body of a child. That loving gesture in the narthex of my parish church transported me to Nain, as Jesus interrupted a funeral procession. That morning, I was offered a glimpse of what happens when the finite and frail earthly bodies of the faithful have completed their work of hosting that which is infinite and eternal. Our good and loving and merciful…and all powerful God…God of the living and the dead…approaches us and lovingly caresses us…completely embracing us in a life-giving hug …and resurrects us…turning the sorrowful mystery of death into the glorious mystery of eternal joy.
On this Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, we hear the stories of two miracles. But, I think possibly I was privileged to give witness to an even greater miracle. The indescribable look on the face of that mother as she took leave of her child was made possible because in the very depths of her being, she heard the words that Elijah spoke. YOUR CHILD IS ALIVE. When we believe that Jesus Christ is the Resurrection and the Life… someday, we will hear Him speak the words He spoke in Nain…I TELL YOU ARISE!
We may be in Ordinary Time, but there certainly is nothing ordinary about our God…God of the living and the dead! Our God visits us in the sorrowful mysteries of our lives, turning them into glorious and joyful mysteries…if only we are wise enough to believe.