Saturday, November 2, 2013

"The most powerful signs efface themselves." (Death is never the final word; it is no more than a passage to that fullness promised by Christ who has conquered death itself.) A Reflection on the Feast of All Souls.

Death’s a strange creature. We only know it from a distance, it seems; our own death being something we can only imagine. “No one attends his own funeral”, says one philosopher. Another, a stoic from the ancient world, tried to calm the fears of his students by telling them, “death’s not something to fear; when we’re around, it isn’t; and when death’s around, we aren’t. So what’s there to fear?” 

The Christian view of death is very different, of course; it does not deny death’s pain, sorrow, and even uncertainty, but it transcends these with the promise of hope and the encouragement to confidence and trust. It speaks of a “passage”, not an “end”. It speaks more of a promised and hoped-for future than a completed and remembered past.

I’ve always been fascinated, whenever I attend a memorial service or even funeral mass sometimes, when someone, usually at the end, gets up to speak about the deceased. On several occasions, I’ve heard those speaking say, “He died what he loved doing”, or “We’re gathered here today to celebrate the life of so-and-so”, or “He lived a good life”. 

I’ve always felt—despite the fact that I’m pretty sure the speakers never do it on purpose, nor are even aware of the implications of what they say—that something seems to be sorely missing, something lacking, something left unsaid or perhaps even left out by such statements, beautiful and respectful of the deceased though they may be.

As I listen to these words meant to console and comfort those left behind and to pay tribute to the one who has passed on, I couldn’t help but think to myself "Ok, that’s nice, even beautiful. He died what he loved doing. We’re celebrating his or her life, a good life…. But then what?" 

For us Catholics especially, a funeral isn’t simply a celebration of the deceased person’s life, neither is it a mere commemoration of our dearly departed; it is in fact a statement of the most profound faith a human person can ever have: 

"This isn't the end; because there is more, so much more to come. So much fullness, so much happiness, so much life – for one who holds on to the promise of Christ who has conquered death." 

Death, for a Christian is never the final word; and no matter how good one’s life may have been, we believe with every fiber of our being, that there is so much more good to come. Death may be a necessary passage, one we must all go through, but it isn’t the end of our story. 

"Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains just grain of wheat. But if it dies it bears much fruit," Jesus tells us.

Without death, there can be no life eternal, no life without pain, without sorrow, without agony, illness, and heartache. Death is our gateway, our passage to glory.

Really, though? A number of years ago, as I visited the graves of my grandparents, I noticed a rather unkempt grave; it was overgrown with weeds and so it was hard to read what was written on the tombstone. I got curious so I went closer and cleared some of the weeds and dirt that covered it. It was a priest’s grave. He had died in the mid-70’s, was in his late 80’s when he passed away, and perhaps there was no one left in his family to tend to his grave. “How sad,” I thought, as I proceeded to clear the weeds a little more. But at least he had a tombstone, a marker to remind those who pass by that he once walked this earth.

What of the others? Who now remembers the countless millions, nameless and faceless who have died loving Christ and serving others throughout the ages? Even we who remember our own dead can only think and refer to this now anonymous crowd under the traditional collective term—“faithful departed”. 

It’s rather difficult to hold onto a promise of glory when you know there won’t be anyone left to remember you at some far distant future. 

For a handful of human beings, perhaps, it isn’t a problem. The more famous ones among us go down in history and are remembered—as two dimensional characters in history books. 

Is this the glory promised by Christ? I certainly hope not. 

“The most powerful signs efface themselves”, says the philosopher, Paul Ricoeur. Today’s commemoration of the dead reminds us of this fact. 

Sir Lawrence Olivier was once asked why he became an actor and he answered: “Look at me; look at me; look at me”. Robert, a priest I met at The Hague many years ago also gave me that answer when I asked him why he decided to become a priest. 

I suppose that could also be said for many of us. We have gifts and talents, strengths and abilities we are proud to be able to share them. And that’s fine; the problem is, when the “I” is gone, there’s nothing left to look at, except perhaps a trace, which only gets dimmer as time go by.

The glory of which today’s Gospel reading speaks and is promised to us Christians is the glory of Christ who suffered, died, and rose again. We’re baptized into it. 

Now for John, Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, though temporally distinct, are not three separate episodes. They’re part of one piece, a seamless garment revealing the glory of Christ. 

For John, Christ’s glorification is not an ‘after-effect’ of his death, and his death is not a mere ‘prelude’ causing or leading to his glorification. His death is his glorification. In his destruction and effacement lies Christ’s true power and glory. 

The most powerful signs efface themselves. A Christian, initiated into the Body of Christ is initiated into Christ’s death. Dietrich Bonhoffer could not have put it more powerfully. He says: “When Christ bids you come, he bids you come and die”. What kind of death? Death to self. 

The most powerful signs efface themselves. It’s easy to fall into the danger of wanting to save the world and putting ourselves in the forefront of salvation history. No need, the world was saved two thousand years ago. We’re not asked to do it again.

It’s easy to despair that our effort to change the world is often frustrated, our voices, silenced by a world so eager to prove itself right by proving us wrong. Does it matter?  Hardly. For we know that nothing we do is ever in vain. 

Our glory is not measured by our success; instead it lies in the realization that our Redeemer lives. 

“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies it bears much fruit.” 

The faithful departed whom we remember today remind us that our true glory is in the person of Christ. It is not ourselves we proclaim, but him who sends us. We are not the sun, simply the moon reflecting the sun’s light. We are not the entire score, simply a note in the eternal melody, a line in the verse of God’s everlasting poetry.

Our hope of everlasting life is in our sharing in Christ’s death; our power in the losing and effacing of ourselves in order that Christ may be known; our glory in our being part of the Body of Christ our Head. 

The most powerful signs efface themselves. The faceless and nameless and now voiceless crowd whom we remember today speaks eloquently of this fact.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)