Because I have a flexible schedule, I get to assist at the altar at quite a few funerals. These funerals do me good in several ways. In an odd way, funerals even “speak” to conversion, particularly Catholic funerals. The sacraments and the liturgy comfort and strengthen us. They draw us to God.
There is a constant reminder of Christian baptism
In a Catholic funeral, baptism is front and center in the rite. The coffin is blessed with holy water as a reminder of the baptism of the deceased. The coffin is covered with a white cloth called a funeral pall. The pall represents the baptismal garment of the deceased.
During the funeral, next to the coffin is perhaps the most significant of our Catholic symbols, the Easter Candle. “During the year it is lit at all baptisms and funeral services; the candle is placed next to the casket during the funeral Mass. In this way it symbolizes baptism as a death and resurrection in Christ, and also testifies to Christian certainty in the resurrection of the dead as well as to the fact that all are alive in the risen Christ.” From Fr. Edward McNamara Regina Apostolorum Univ.
Why is baptism emphasized? Because it is through baptism we are “in” Christ (Galatians 3:27) – we live a new life in Christ because of baptism (Romans 6:4,5) – do you need your sins forgiven? Better get baptized! (Acts 2:38) – St. Peter is willing to go so far as to say that baptism saves us (I Peter 3:21).
Baptism has life all over it, yet it’s the single most prominent thing at a Catholic funeral. How can that be? Because the one who is being mourned and who has died in Christ has not lost her life. Her life has been changed, not ended. In fact, now she has embarked on life so strong we dare to call it eternal.
Whether as a convert or a child, every Christian begins his career in Christ in the waters of baptism. The terror of death is eliminated when we are “in” Christ and the way we get there is baptism.
Funeral sermons are just great. The best and favorite traits and events of a person’s life are recalled. I am exhorted to spend my life on things that matter, things that build up rather than tear down.
Do you ever think about that phrase “spend your life”? It’s not just an idiom. It really is what we are doing. Just as surely as when I was 10 years old and had my birthday money and could spend it however I wanted, it is a certain thing that day-by-day I am spending my life.
Catholic funerals smell good
At my parish, we have a red powdered incense that makes a lot of smoke and smells straight out of heaven. It fills our small church with the aroma. After the funeral, even hours after, the incense lingers in the church.
When I assist at the altar, in handling the incense boat and spoon and in standing in the smoke in the sanctuary, that smell is left on me and in my clothing. Later I may be at my desk or eating a meal and I’ll smell the incense on my sleeve or my hand. I love that. There is something so Catholic, so sacramental, about carrying the scent of solemn worship out of the church on my body.
This is something St. Paul said to the Corinthians:
Thanks be to God, who always leads us in his triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of him in every place. For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life. II Corinthians 2:14-16
No one thinks St. Paul is talking about how I smell after a funeral! And yet… the incense at a funeral reminds me I always want to bring the sweet smell of the knowledge of God to people around me.
To receive communion is to receive life
The Eucharist gives us Jesus himself as nourishment. The one who said “I am the life” and “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” – this one of whom John says “In him was life and the life was the light of men”. Through the hands of his priest, this one gives himself to us as food to nourish our own life in him.
It’s such an irony how everything in a Catholic funeral points toward life and its increase.
Ignatius of Antioch is one of the early church fathers. He flourished in the 90‘s and the first years of the second century. It is beyond doubt that he had at least an indirect association with the apostles themselves, and perhaps may have had direct contact. This is one of the things he wrote about the Eucharist: “breaking one and the same bread, which is the medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying, but [which causes] that we should live forever in Jesus Christ”.
Just as an aside, the early Christians believed as firmly as we do today that the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist gave to them the body and blood of Christ. It is one (out of many!) of the excellent reasons to trust the teaching of the Catholic Church.
The almost incomparable words of In Paradisum
At the final commendation in a Catholic funeral, the priest has several choices of words in a part of the rite I usually hear referred to as In paradisum. Here is part of what he may choose from. To my sensibility, these words are as beautiful as any I have ever heard.
May the angels lead you into Paradise,
May the martyrs come to welcome you
And take you to the holy city,
The new and eternal Jerusalem.
May choirs of angels welcome you
And lead you to the bosom of Abraham;
And where Lazarus is poor no longer
May you find eternal rest.
“Where Lazarus is poor no longer” is exactly where I want to rest. If you don’t know what the reference is to, read the passage from Luke 16 here. Start with verse 19.
Funerals remind me I will die
I’m not too good at reading myself, but I suspect that after a funeral I’m a bit more patient, especially about things that don’t matter all that much, anyway. A little less grouchy. I do know I’m more generous when I get out of a funeral. Those are good things, of course, and I think it’s because the reminder of death improves my perspective.
In thinking about converting to Jesus or about some major improvement in what is already your walk with Jesus, perhaps the most tempting failure is just to delay things awhile. “Give it a little time” they say. A funeral reminds me maybe I don’t have even a little time. Maybe tomorrow, it’s me in the ER, or maybe it’s me who simply doesn’t wake up. Whatever the amount of time left to me, there’s no doubt I will die. Once I die I must explain my life to Jesus, I must stand in judgment before him and there will be no excuses, no second chances. Here’s a sobering verse from Hebrews 4 that talks about God’s judgment: “No creature is concealed from him [God], but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account.”
It is good for me to know that nothing I do is hidden from God. Funerals help me remember always to be ready to “render an account” to God.
Be aware of the whole of your life, not just today or just this week.
Be ready to die.
If you know something must change, then change it.