I presented the following reflection to a workshop on Bereavement Ministry at the Pastoral Center in the Archdiocese of Boston this morning,
On Friday, forty-eight hours after his decision to die in our home, Dad slipped beyond responding. We still talked softly to him as we moistened his lips, bathed him, or changed his pajamas. At this point the work of dying was physical, like the early labor of childbirth. I thought how appropriate the obstetrical term labor was; it looked like hard work. Dad was sweating, his heart raced, and his breathing was rapid. There was no way to know what he was feeling. We sat by him and held his hand and adjusted his pillows and kept his lips moist and forehead cool.
There was little for us to do, and none of us wanted to leave his side. Less than twenty minutes later, Mom woke us to report that Dad's breathing had abruptly changed. He appeared suddenly to be relaxed, as if the work, whatever it had been, was over. He was peaceful, no longer sweating, and is breathing was easy and deep, though irregular. Mom stood touching his foot, and Anita and I sat on each side of his bed touching his arms, as he drew his last breath and left. For the next hour we continued our vigil: hugging one another, crying intermittently, grieving openly and together.
What is it about being present at the moment of the last breath that moves us so deeply and unequivocally? What is it . . . ? Is it the act of dying? The pain? The uncertainty,' The fear? What is it that calls us, demands of it our undivided attention? It is the dead human body which so mercilessly shocks us out of our incessant presumption that our bodies and the bodies of those we love will never die? Strangely deaf to the ashes which mark each Lent, we spend a lifetime evading that dust which is our destiny.
But at that one deathbed moment we cannot evade the mortal truth. There it's all-too-clear. Or, as a wise women once wrote:
To witness death ... places the same sort of demands on a person as the receiving of a confession of sin. It demands that one has come to terms rather radically with one's own approaching death as a dimension of life in the present. At the moment of death it all comes home starkly, unambiguously and without equivocation. This body will, sooner or later, die . . . and decay . . . and be buried.
And how does the Church respond to the stark reality of death? Simply put, she “ministers to the sorrowing and consoles them in the funeral rites with the comforting word of God and the sacrament of the eucharist.” (OCF, no. 00) Thus does she bring “hope and consolation to the living.”
The rites for Christian Burial are contained in the Order of Christian Funerals, a book heavily adapted for the English speaking world and confirmed for use in the Dioceses of the United States of America in in 1987.
The introduction or praenotanda to this liturgical book describes a twofold purpose to the Church’s rites and prayers from death to burial. The first is the proclamation of the Paschal Mystery….
The second purpose of her rites grows from and reinforces the first. It is described as her “Ministry of Consolation” in three acts: “to care for the dying, to pray for the dead, to comfort those who mourn.”
CARING FOR THE DYING
The care for the dying itself is in two parts: before and after death. Before death, the Church accompanies the dying Christian with the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick and the other rites contained in her rite of Pastoral Care of the Sick and Dying, culminating in the giving of Viaticum and the commendation of the dying to the hands of God.
After death the Church pays a debt of prayer to the deceased Christian, offering the Holy Eucharist for the redemption of her soul and seeking to pray her into heaven, confident in God’s infinite mercy.
COMFORTING THOSE WHO MOURN
It is the third moment of this Ministry of Consolation, however, which comes closest to your theme today in the Church’s comforting of those who mourn, in fulfillment of the Lord’s command: "Blessed are they who mourn; they shall be consoled" (Matthew 5:3)
The responsibility for this ministry “rests with the believing community…each Christian shares in this ministry according to the various gifts and offices in the Church.”
THE PRIEST CONSOLES
Thus priests and the ministers of the Church “instruct the parish community on the Christian meaning of death and on the purpose and significance of the Church's liturgical rites for the dead.” They remind us that our sorrow is like that of the Sorrowful Virgin and a participation in the death of her Son upon the cross.
They teach us to recall how he suffered the torments of the passion: his flesh torn by whips, his side pierced by a lance, he bled real blood and knew the pain of being a man. And when they hung his arms from a cross beam, his lungs gasped a last breath and He died. His friends embraced his dead body as it was taken down from the cross. They carried the cold and bloodied corpse to a tomb, wept bitter tears and rolled a rock across its entrance. Three days later they returned to anoint and embrace Him for one last time. On that day this body rose, "the first of many brothers," triumphantly He rose-and by His rising showed us that as He has done, so also we shall do in these poor bodies of ours.
In the face of all this, priests proclaim that we preach a counter-cultural approach to death: which demands an intimacy with death and with the bodies of those who have died:
1) We believe that we were joined to Christ's own death in baptism, that as Our bodies were washed in the waters of the font, we were inserted into the pascha of Him whose grave is the portal to eternal life;
2) We believe that we are separated from those who have died for but a little while, and so with "Sure and certain hope" we place their bodies in the earth, waiting like the women at the tomb, for them to be raised for judgment in the fullness of time;
3) And each day we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ who will raise these mortal bodies Of Ours and clothe them in an incorruptibility born of His divinity. and while we wait, we pray
-confident that all who die with Him will live with Him
-confident that God hears the prayers of the Church
-confident in God's love for us and His mercy ...
THE FAITHFUL CONSOLE
So too, do the Christian faithful share in this Ministry of Consolation. Such a ministry is particularly challenging in a day and age which sees bereavement and consolation as essentially private or familial affairs. But the birth of the Christian unto eternal life is anything but private. It is the fulfillment of their Baptismal dying and rising with Christ and their incorporation into his Body the Church. The hope which sustains us, even in the face of death, is that we have been made one with the firstborn of many brothers.
Thus does the Order of Christian Funerals suggest that all the members of every parish assume the responsibility to “respond to the anguish voiced by Martha, the sister of Lazarus: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would never have died" (John 11:21). They do this by proclaiming with their lives the same words which the Lord spoke in love: "Your brother will rise again…. I am the resurrection and the life: those who believe in me, though they should die, will come to life; and those who are alive and believe in me will never die" (John 11:25-26). Thus does “the faith of the Christian community in the resurrection of the dead brings support and strength to those who suffer the loss of those whom they love.”
But words alone are not sufficient to the task, and the second aspect of their Ministry of Consolation of the Christian community must be marked by “acts of kindness, for example, assisting them with some of the routine tasks of daily living. Such assistance may allow members of the family to devote time to planning the funeral rites with the priest and other ministers and may also give the family time for prayer and mutual comfort.”
Finally, the Christian community is called upon to exercise its “principal involvement in the ministry of consolation” by their “active participation in the celebration of the funeral rites…” For just as the celebration of the Holy Eucharist is the source and the summit of the entire Christian life, so too the Funeral Mass is at the heart of the Church’s consolation of the bereaved.
Imagine for a moment, or recall if you will, the moment you first saw the dead body of a person you once loved. You walk into the Funeral Home, filled with for boding and maybe even a bit queasy. Then you look across the room and see the body in which Mark has lived all these years. The body that embraced you, that shook your hand, that smiled when you spoke his name and laughed at your worst jokes. The eyes that teared up when you were sad and gazed with pride at your many accomplishments.
At that moment you miss your friend, you’d do anything to have just five minutes more to hear his voice. There’s an emptiness, a god of uncertainty that seems to suck the air out of the room. And then you hear the Church pray:
Lord our God,
the death of our brother Mark
recalls our human condition
and the brevity of our lives on earth. But for those who believe in your love
death is not the end,
nor does it destroy the bonds
that you forge in our lives.
We share the faith of your Son’s disciples
and the hope of the children of God.
Bring the light of Christ’s resurrection
to this time of testing and pain
as we pray for Mark and for those who love him
through Christ our Lord.
Such rites of consolation are the reason we do not mourn like those who have no hope.
Another rich source of Christian consolation in the Order of Christian Funerals is found in a collection of original prayers which are unique to the English-Language edition. Here we find thirteen general texts, as well as prayers specific to the burial of a Bishop, a Priest, a Deacon, a religious or one who worked in the service of the Gospel. Prayers for the death of a child, a young person, a parent or a married couple, a husband or a wife are also found along with particular prayers for a deceased non-Christian married to a Catholic, an elderly person, one who died after al long illness, one who died suddenly, am accidental or violent death and one who died by suicide.
There are fifteen additional prayer texts specifically for mourners themselves. And while I would strongly recommend your study and contemplation of each of these prayers, allow me to examine just two of them in depth for the purposes of our reflection on bereavement and the Order of Christian Funerals.
The first is the last of all these prayers and is intended for the Funeral of a stillborn child. The prayer brings me back to the sad days I walked with a couple about a decade ago as they buried their second child, born prematurely at ten weeks.
Their three year old, Martin, took it very hard. I remember going with him and his father to visit Sarah in the hospital late on the day in which their son Timothy died during birth. Martin ran over to his mother and immediately placed his little hand on her stomach. “I know, I know,” he said with excitement in his voice, “Mommy just eat more spinach and Timothy will be OK again!”
All we could do was weep, and hug little Martin to consolation. And pray, in these words:
ever caring and gentle,
we commit to your love this little one,
quickened to life for so short a time.
Enfold him in eternal life.
We pray for his parents
who are saddened by the loss of their child.
Give them courage
and help them in their pain and grief. May they all meet one day
in the joy and peace of your kingdom.
Through Christ our Lord.
What does the prayer seek to do? It does the same thing we are called to do in every act of consolation in face of death. When God seems cruel and almost violent in the face of the death of one so little and innocent and pure, we are reminded that he is caring and gentle. We commit the child to God’s loving embrace.
The somewhat archaic phrase “quickened to life for so short a time” articulates perfectly the flash of beauty which was the presence of this child in our family for so short a time.
We admit sadness, how could we not, and loss and pain and grief. But then we pray for courage and remind them of the vision God may grant them at the end of time when they might run out to see Timothy and all who have died in Christ and bask with them in the glory of the Kingdom of God for all eternity.
Having examined the last of the optional prayers for mourners I would now invite you to hear the first and the longest of these prayers. The prayer is in three parts. The first, like every Roman Collect, addressed God and professes our faith in him. This is followed by two sets of question: The first asking for comfort and peace and the lat for Faith.
First, the profession of faith:
Father of mercies and God of all consolation,
you pursue us with untiring love
and dispel the shadow of death with the bright dawn of life.
This is a uniquely contemporary prayer, almost echoing the famous poem by Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven. God is not only the author of all consolation and the one who dispels death’s dark shadow with the bright dawn of life, but he is the one who pursues us, runs after us, follows us with his untiring love.
As we contemplate the life of the deceased we are naturally led to comparisons with our own journey. We think of the paths we have chosen, some leading us closer to Christ, some leading us further away. But no matter where we wander, even into the shadow of death, Christ’s love never grows tired and he ever seeks to light our path and embrace us with his love.
So following this setup of the wandering Christian and the untiring pursuer, we make the first ask:
Comfort your family in their loss and sorrow.
Be our refuge and our strength O Lord,
and lift us from the depths of grief
into the peace and light of your presence.
This is a very Biblical prayers, drawn largely from the Psalms. Just as we have recalled that God’s light dispels the Shadow of Death (Psalm 23) now we ask God to be our refuge and strength (Psalm 46) and to lift us from the depths of grief (de profundis, Psalm 129) into this presence. Here we might recall the words of Saint Augustine that our hearts never truly rest until they rest in God. So too, stricken by grief and pain and fear and sin, our hearts never rest until they know the peace and light of God’s presence.
This leads us to the second and more extended petition:
Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ,
by dying has destroyed our death,
and by rising, restored our life.
Enable us therefore to press on toward him,
so that, after our earthly course is run,
he may reunite us with those we love,
when every tear will be wiped away.
Through Christ our Lord.
This last petition recalls the profession we may at the start of the prayer, again in the words of Sacred scripture, dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life. It is followed a uniquely modern concept, asking for the grace to “press on toward him.” It is the biblical image of running out to meet Christ at his coming which we find throughout the prayers of Advent and Christmas. But here the running to Christ is seen to be a pressing on…a difficult task. How mourners can appreciate such a state, wanting to just sit down on my dung heap and pick at my scabs, to give up and just give in to the misery and grief. But these consoling words beg God to give us the grace to run our earthly course that God might “reunite us with those we love, when every tear will be wiped away.”
Consolation of the bereaved, then, is not just a matter to wiping tears or giving hugs. It is a mini try of evangelization, of reminding even those who have been caught up in the web of the darkness of death, that this is all in God’s plan and that it is our task as the living to run all the faster to meet him at his coming that he might make call us to himself and love might triumph. That is a true ministry of consolation.
The Ministry of Consolation, then, is nothing less than the fulfillment of our responsibility to bury the dead. There are few times in which the meaning of life is more starkly present to us, and few times which the word of faith can have greater effect.
And we who have been Baptized need the Church at just such moments. When I buried my father, a mere none months ago, I began the Rite of Final Commendation by spontaneously declaring, “I just don’t know how anyone who do this without the Church.”
As Stephen King once wrote: “The family exists for many reasons, but its most basic function may be to draw together after a member dies.” And so we draw together in hope and in faith, we the children of the one Father, the brothers and sisters of Jesus, to proclaim his Paschal dying and rising and to rejoice in our share in his redemptive sacrificial love.
And that is consolation.