Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Remembering the Dead

During the month of November, beginning with our commemoration of All Souls, we remember those who have died.  Here are a few reflections which I offered at a Prayer Service led by the Hospice Ministry at Notre Dame du Lac in Worcester.

Tonight is about remembering.

In each heart that beats in this Chapel there are remembrances.  You see the face of the one whom you love.  You can almost hear their voice.  You tell the old stories about how it used to be.  In the face of death, we remember.

We’re like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.  You know the story. It’s Easter Sunday morning, and two of Jesus’ closest followers are walking away from Jerusalem.  It was a long walk, seven miles Saint Luke tells us.  And as they walked, they did what we do: these men who had just buried their Lord were “conversing about all the things that had occurred.”  They were remembering.

It seems from Luke’s account that they were doing three kinds of remembering.  The first probably consisted of stories about everything they had been through in the three years since the Lord first called them to come and follow him.  

Telling the stories is good, as Jesus tells us when suddenly, out of nowhere and in disguise, he begins to walk with them.  And what are his first words to them “What are you discussing?  Tell me the stories which ache in your heart.”

As he walked with them, so Jesus walks with us in our grief and he says the same to our hearts.  Tell me the stories.  The stories of how much she loved you when you were a little kid, of how he first taught you to ride a bike.  The stories of that funny hat they used to wear and how embarrassed they made you feel when you were a gawky teenager.  

The fond stories, the funny stories, but the hard stories as well.  Remembering the little and sometimes not so little hurts, the disappointments and the dreams unlived.    

I recently went to the wake of a large family from upstate New York.  As I arrived, I noticed amidst the flowers and pictures and video slideshows something I had never seen before.  It was an enormous moosehead, which had always hung in their family’s living room.  And in a frame on an easel, beneath the moose, there was this poem:

The moose that once presided over games
of Monopoly and crazy eights,
that loomed above us, goofy and majestic,
into whose antlers we threw paper planes,
still hangs over the great stone fireplace
like the figurehead of a ship.

All these years he hasn't flicked an eyelash
in response to anything we've done,
and in that way resembles God,
whom, as children, we imagined looking down
but didn't know how to visualize. A moose
over the alter would have been

as good as anything—better than a cross—
staring down on us with kind dark eyes
that would have seemed, at least, to understand,
his antlers like gigantic upturned hands
ready to lift us off the ground—
or like enormous wings outspread for flight.

Stories. So many stories, of family, of life, of loss and of wonder.

And to whom do you tell these stories as you walk your road to Emmaus?  Sometimes you tell them to people who love you, or who will at least put up with you while you tell them for the fourteenth time.  But each time you tell the story, someone else is there, as well.  Just as he was on the road to Emmaus, Jesus comes out of nowhere, listening to you, urging you, begging you to pour out your heart, to tell the stories of the one you’ve loved.  And he,  through whom all human hearts were made, listens with his own Sacred Heart to your sacred memories and he cries with you, standing there at the kitchen sink or in the quiet of the night when you can’t get to sleep.  He listens and embraces your memories and soothes and makes sense of the story of which you are now the sacred custodian.

And as if that weren’t enough, there is a second kind of remembering on this road we walk.  It is a bit more poignant, when, like the trio walking to Emmaus, we remember the pain, the disappointment and uncertainty which are the dark companions of those who have buried the one they love.

As they walked to Emmaus they were angry, verging on bitter words about Jesus’ death.  That’s so clear when Clopas, responding to Jesus’ question about what they were talking about, snaps back: ‘Are you the only one in Jerusalem who doesn’t know what happened?’  

And so he tells the story of the past few days, including these extraordinarily painful words:  ‘we were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel, but it is now the third day since this took place.’  We were hoping, but…

In the heart of every human being who walks away from the grave of the one they loved there is that aching suspicion that we hoped in vain.  Even Jesus knew it at the grave of his friend Lazarus.  You remember it, when he finally came to the grave and saw his friend’s body, what did Jesus do?  Did he preach a sermon or give a a great teaching or tell a parable?  No, Jesus the Son of the living God, the King of the Universe through whom all things were made wept.  He wept.  Not cried.  He wept, sobbing and gasping for breath.

Some stories can only be told with tears running down your cheeks.  Some darknesses are so dark, some crosses so heavy, some storms blow so strong that we cannot stand up to them.  And it is at just that moment when Jesus appears and drys our tears and strengthens our bodies and holds us up when we are about to collapse from grief.

It is one of the most sacred moments of life, when we let go of our well thought out plans and designs and all the ways in which we will control life, and just fall into the arms of God, embracing his plan and his will and his love for us.

For the great good news of the Cross is that we do not have to be in control.  We don’t have to figure it out.  We don’t have to fix it.  We don’t have to plot our next move.  All we have to do is discern the will of God, find the road to Emmaus and walked with him as he explains it, points out the way, and shepherds us home to green pastures and still waters which refresh our souls.

And finally, there is a third kind of remembering that took place on that road and that takes place here tonight.  It’s why we’re gathered in a Chapel, because this is where God lives and where his people gather to speak with him, adore him and receive him deep within their hearts.

In the climax of the Emmaus story, Jesus, whom they still think is a stranger, acts as if he is going on further, but they beg him to stay with them, have a meal and spend the night that they might continue to tell the stories.  

So he comes inside, but only because they have invited him, and they come to know him, Saint Luke tells us, in the breaking of the bread.

We too can invite Jesus inside, to continue to tell the stories of joy and of comfort, of pain and of hope. And he will sit at table with us and we will come to see him, in the breaking of the bread.

See his Risen body, which tells us that we need never fear death again.  Hear his promise that he will raise up everyone who have believed in him and lead them home to heaven.  Know his presence as he lives in us and we in him.

They came to know him in the breaking of the bread.  They came to know how much he loved them.  They came to know perduring presence.  They came to know him as he broke the bread, as he looked them in the eye and said, Do this in remembrance of me.

It is good to remember, that we might see the Lord, and he might lead us home to heaven to be with those whom we have loved forever in perfect peace.

Eternal Rest grant unto them, O Lord.
And let perpetual light shine upon them.

May they rest in peace.

May their souls and the souls of the faithful departed

Through the mercy of God rest in peace.  Amen.