When I was a young priest up in Ferndale, one week I had several funerals. I mentioned it to Father Brown, a wise old priest who was living with me at the time. He asked me, "Do you remember the book of Tobit?"
I said, "yes, isn't it mainly about marriage?"
He replies, "Sure, but don't you recall the very beginning, why Tobit was praised?"
"No," I said, "I don't."
"Well," he said, "Tobit was praised for burying the dead."
After Father Brown said that to me, I started noticing how important burial rites are in the Bible. An entire chapter of Genesis (ch. 23) describes the care Abraham took when his beloved wife, Sara, died. He went to great lengths to give her the most fitting funeral rites and burial. The same can be said for Joseph; in fact, Moses took his remains out of Egypt to bury them in the Promised Land (Ex. 13:19).
We can also see the importance of a dignified burial in this Sunday's Gospel. We hear about the death, burial and resurrection of Lazarus. As was the case with Jesus, they washed and anointed his body, then carefully wrapped it in linen before placing it in a tomb. This may not seem so essential to us, but perphaps that is because we have gone away from the Bible. In our society we have gotten used to diminished funeral rites. But let me ask you this. Don't you feel something sad inside when you hear or read, "At the request of the deceased, there will be no funeral services"?
This lessening of funeral rites is a great mistake. We just heard about Lazarus' death, burial and resurrection. And in only one week we will begin the celebration of the greatest event in history: the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. If we understand our Catholic burial rites, it will help us appreciate the meaning of Holy Week. I'd like to say a word this Sunday about what those rites are and why they are so important.
First of all, there is the vigil or Christian wake. This is the time when the family can gather before the open casket to remember and pray for their loved one. The Church has a wonderful vigil rite which includes Scripture readings and prayers. Here at Holy Family our deacon Ted Weise does such a great job working with the family members to make the vigil and the funeral service as meaningful as possible. At the vigil, besides, the prescribed readings and prayers, the family can also say the rosary or other devotions. In many countries it is the custom to spend the entire night. This is when it is most appropriate to have eulogies and stories.
Sometimes you learn the most amazing things. At the vigil service for my dad, my oldest brother shared how he disagreed with my dad about birth control. He had told my dad that instead of having six children, he should have only had two, namely him and Greg. My dad told him, "Look, you were born nine and half month after we got married. If we were using birth control, we certainly would have never had you." My brother said that really made him think. Always great stories come out at the time of the vigil.
The next day is the Mass of Christian burial. It is so important that the body be present--even if later it will be cremated. This body we have belongs to God. That happened on the day of our baptism. None of us can say "my body." When we were baptized, our bodies were joined to Jesus. We will see this at our Easter Vigil when adults and children will be baptized by having water poured over their entire body. In the early church after baptism the entire body was anointed. They knew they belonged to Jesus. We are a bit more reserved today, but it is the same reality. That's why the funeral Mass begins with the blessing of the body with holy water. "In the waters of baptism, you died with Christ and rose with him to new life."
The body is then present for the Mass. The greatest thing you can do for your departed love ones is the sacrifice of the Mass. The Bible encourages prayers and sacrifices for the dead (2 Macc. 12:38ff.). I want to celebrate a funeral Mass for every parishioner who dies in Holy Family. One of the reasons I wear a beeper is so that even if I'm up at my mom's on a day off, I can make arrangements for a funeral when a parishioner dies. The funeral Mass itself is so beautiful. We don't need to add things on to it, like eulogies and popular songs. All that can be done at the vigil or the reception after the Mass. To add those things on to the funeral Mass is like going to a great concert and asking the conductor to play a Johnny Cash song. Don't get me wrong. I like Johnny Cash. But I know he isn't as great as Beethoven. The Mass like a great concert has its own structure.
At the very end of the funeral Mass the body of the deceased is incensed. The smoke of the incense with its sweet odor is a powerful sign of reverence and respect for the human body. You know it's possible for us to fall into the "New Age" view of the human body. In the New Age (which is basically the old Gnosticism) we are kind of looked as "renters" who possess a body. Just something we use, like a car, then it has to be disposed of when it gets worn and quits running. Isn't this the ultimate dehumanization of our consumer society--to even look at our bodies as something to be consumed? Once they are no good bring in Dr. Kevorkian and then get rid of them as quickly and as cheaply as possible That is not the Christian approach. Nor does this mean we have to spend lavish amounts. Even the most simple casket looks beautiful because we drape it with a lovely white cloth called the funeral pall. You don't need to buy out the florist shop. A single boquet of flowers can be stunning. The Christian approach always balances personal austerity with beauty for others. Remember Jesus praised the woman who poured perfume over his body. This flesh of course will dissolve, but one day will be raised up. In just two weeks we celebrate Easter Sunday. All of us, God willing, will have an Easter Sunday. We have to pass thru Good Friday, but we shall arrive at Easter, the resurrection.
Even those who used their bodies selfishly will have them raised up on the last day. But God will say to them, "You refused to use your body to serve me. You took drugs. You stay in bed on Sunday morning. You used your body--and those of others--for your own selfish pleasure. Well, I give you what you yourself always demanded. You kept saying my body. It is now yours alone for all eternity."
But to those who serve God in this life, they will discover the real purpose of the human body. It is meant to glorify God in the communion of saints. When the Bible talks about heaven, it often used the image of marriage. Of course the marriage union is really only a glimpe of what awaits us. But make no mistake, it will be a flesh and blood union. Easter Sunday tells us that.
I sometimes think of this when I visit my dad's grave. I long to see my dad again. But not just my dad's spirit. I want to see his smile, to hear his voice, to feel his hand clasp. I want to see those looks, the interaction between him and my brother, between him and my mom. I know his body is under the ground, but I believe it will be raised up.
It is true that, given enough time, my dad's body will turn to dust as surely as if it were cremated. But I am glad it has it's place in the earth, not in an urn. Some people think it's wrong to take up space in cemeteries. At least two things need to be said about that fear. First, even if we don't open one new cemetery, there is enough space in our present graveyards for everyone who dies well thru the middle of the next century. But second cemeteries are green spaces. They can be beautiful places to visit, to remember and pray for our loved ones. It is a sad fact in our society that people visit cemeteries less and less. Perhaps that is why our lives are so out of kilter. Visiting the graves of our loved ones can help remind us what our own life is about. What our final destiny is.
We get a glimpse of that in today's Gospel. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. He brings him back, not because this life is so great, but as a living sign of what awaits us. These bodies will be raised up--by the power of Jesus. That is what Easter Sunday proclaims.
*Pre-Baptismal Exorcisms preceed by examinations and call to repentance. (The third & final scrutiny is performed on the Fifth Sunday of Lent)
See also: An Eternally Unbridgeable Chasm
The Fiery Furnace
Jesus Teaching Concerning Heaven
Some Good News on Teen Pregnancy and Abortion
Hitler's Pope: Comic Book Approach to Church History
He Approached the Victim: "It's much more likely one of your relatives will lose his life by surgical abortion than by heart attack."
Germaine Greer on Birth Control
Human Cloning: A Catholic Perspective (How the Unthinkable Became Inevitable)
Boston Globe's Misleading Article on Catholic Church
Deflating Darwin's Dangerous Idea
Stephen Jay Gould: Gorbachev of Darwinism?
Test Tube Offspring Want to Know Father
Erickson vs. Bartell Drugs
Call No Man Father
What is Original Sin of Sex?
Bicentennial Man (Hidden Assumptions)
Bogus Knights of Columbus Oath
Ossuary of James, Son of Joseph, Brother of Jesus