Rites of Family, Rites of Faith

January 29, 2010

The first funeral homily I ever preached was for my grandmother on the Tuesday of Easter Week during my final year of seminary in 1986.  I had just been ordained a deacon in February and was to be ordained a priest in June.  Grandma had cancer.  I don’t remember if she was able to make my diaconate ordination but I don’t think so as she was so sick and weak for the last few months.  She was a lovely woman who loved her children and her grandchildren very much.  Over the last few months of her life, we all had a chance to visit with her.  I remember one time I went to see her late at night in the hospital to bring her communion.  The ward lights were dim but she was still awake, praying her rosary, waiting for me as I had told her I would be late.  While we were visiting after I gave her communion, she told me her one regret about dying was that she was not going to live long enough to see me ordained a priest.  She died on Holy Thursday morning.  That afternoon, I got word that the Cardinal was calling me to holy orders.

You can well imagine how different the celebration of the Easter Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday was for my family and me that year.  The images of death and resurrection, the empty tomb, the light of the Easter Candle, all had a particular immediacy for us.  While we gathered for Easter Sunday, it wasn’t the happy occasion that it had been in the past.  One thing we did do though, was we told stories of grandma and grandpa and all the times we had been together as a family and all the meals that we had shared and all the holidays that we had celebrated and all the stupid funny things we had done, talking about all of the stuff that made us who we are as a family.  We shared a meal and watched the youngest hunt for easter eggs and washed the dishes and cleaned up and headed home, knowing we would gather the next day at the funeral home to begin the task of laying our grandmother to rest.  Even in the midst of death, life went on, sustained by ritual.  We gathered, we remembered, and we shared a meal, something we had done many times in the past and have done many times since, but each time, a bit differently.  Sounds an awful lot like Mass, doesn’t it? – remembering, sharing, praying, feeding.   Whether it’s the Eucharist or a family meal, circumstances change, situations are different, people enter and depart our lives, new generations begin as older generations fade, but still the rituals of family and faith perdure, shaping and giving meaning to our lives.

Last spring, the last of my father’s siblings died, my uncles Randall and Charlie.  After Charlie died, I called one of my cousins up in Maine to give her the news and to ask her to let her father and mother know.  Her parents are in their eighties, the same generation as my father and his brothers.  As our conversation continued, she began to talk about how time was getting short for her parents as well.  Each day there seemed to be another visit to the doctor, another body part failing, another medical condition to confront, but they were still hanging in there.  She talked about how each day was becoming more and more precious to her.  I asked her, “Have you noticed how as you get older, the day seems to go by faster and faster?”  She laughed and said, “Absolutely, that’s why it’s so important to make each day count.”  She asked for my father, how he was doing.  She was not the last to do so over the next few days.  At both the wake and the funeral, everyone, especially Charlie’s children, seemed to offer particular care to my Dad, constantly coming up and asking him, “How are you doing, Uncle Billy?”  Most of the time my Dad probably couldn’t hear them with all of the noise and his deafness, but he still got the picture, loud and clear.  All around him was his family, different people, different lives, different stories, but doing what families do – loving each other, supporting each other, caring for each other.  The funeral ritual, from the prayers as one lay dying, to the moment after death, through the wake, the Mass and the burial, served as the framework upon which the stuff of our lives and faith was hung, allowing us to remember, to mourn, to hope.

Our faith does ritual well.  Whether it’s the Mass or Confession or the Rosary, the repetitive nature of ritual allows us to easily move into the familiar  rhythms of prayer and gesture and lose ourselves in it.  Whatever the circumstances may be at that moment, whether we are in a “good place” or not so “good place,” ritual allows us to express and find meaning in our lives.  But, I’m also sure that the rituals of family and friendship do so as well and just as we take care to make sure our faith rituals are maintained with care, we have to pay attention to the rituals of family – gathering together, eating together, and laughing and sometimes crying together.

I’m sure in your life there have been different Easters, years when the holiday took on a different meaning because the “stuff” of your life was different that year.  I’m sure that Easter was different for my Dad this year.  But I’m also sure that there was a lot that was the same for him as well – his family was still there, we all came to Easter Sunday Mass together here at St. Margaret Mary, and we all gathered for Sunday dinner and an easter egg hunt for the youngest, washed the dishes, and head home late in the day.  We even heard the same old stories that we hear each year, even the ones that may have been told back in 1986, but that was okay.  No one seemed to mind.  In fact, everyone seemed to enjoy it.