Mass of Remembrance – July 11, 2019
Isaiah 25:6a, 7-9; Romans 6:3-9; Luke 24:13-35
For as long as I can remember, Memorial Day has brought with it the cherished practice of placing flowers on the graves of loved ones from my family – a practice that is identical to what virtually every one of you find yourselves doing during the latter weeks of May each year. I learned this tradition from my father, who, for as long as I can remember, planted flowers on the graves of his mother, his grandparents, his aunt, his brother and my mother’s parents. I’ve tried to do the same.
While this practice has become rather routine for me, the experience this year quite unexpectedly touched me in a very profound manner. While planting the flowers on my grandmother’s grave, I was struck by the dates on her tombstone. I’d looked at those dates more times than I could imagine. This time, the dates taught me something – about life, death and the power of faith.
My father was two years old when his mother died shortly after giving birth to his younger brother. It was a tragic, unexpected death that left six young children without a mother. My grandmother was only 29 years old when she passed away in 1926. Obviously, I never met her. And my father’s grandmother became the only mother he ever really knew for 78 of the 80 years that he lived. Yet, for as long as she has been gone, my grandmother has been remembered since the time of her death by her parents, her children and now by her grandchildren – so much so that for 93 years, probably with few if any exceptions, there have been flowers on her grave every Memorial Day.
That says a lot about what we do here tonight, doesn’t it? We all cling to whatever we can that enables our loved ones who have died to stay with us in some way. And at the heart of our lives tonight – more than things – are memories of those we love who have passed from this world to the next – memories that for most of us are as vivid today as they were a month ago – a year ago – or even 93 years ago.
Yet, for as much as we might be grateful for a memory, every one of us would rather have our loved ones right with us, in the flesh, breathing and singing in this Cathedral. Why? Because any death, whether it comes after a long, wonderful life or unexpectedly in the life of an infant just a few days old; whether it comes peacefully in one’s sleep, or violently in an accident or by one’s own hands, any death is painful. Any death can cause profound grief. Even Jesus grieved over the death of his friend Lazarus whom he loved. Why wouldn’t we?
In the midst of the glaring reality that comes from the loss of a loved one, however, I beg you not to discount the treasure that comes our way from our memories – the treasure that is ours when we pause to remember and reflect. … What is it that we do we do when we remember someone? We make that person present in our minds and hearts. But is that effort simply an intellectual exercise? No – at least not for us, as people of faith. As Christians, when we make a person present in our minds and hearts we really are affirming the very heart and substance of our faith.
As we pray for our loved ones this evening, we do so in the context of the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. I remind us all that the act of remembering is integrally woven into that life-giving gift to the Church from the Lord Jesus, first offered on the night before he died for us.
Saint Paul reflects upon the Last Supper with words that he had received from the Lord himself, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me. … This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” … Our faith affirms, then, that whenever we celebrate the Eucharist in memory of the Lord Jesus, he becomes present – not as a mere thought – not just in a symbolic manner – but truly alive in a dynamic way– spanning the limits of time and space.
Now, reflect with me for just a moment on the wonderful gospel story proclaimed this evening from Saint Luke: the appearance of Jesus on the road to Emmaus. From the very beginning days of the Church, Saint Luke’s gospel is very clear about the manner in which Jesus continues to be present to his followers – the Church. Jesus is present in the guise of a stranger on the road in the midst of human dialogue. He speaks through the sacred scriptures. And Jesus is recognized in the ritual gestures of the community fellowship meal.
And so, my sisters and brothers, we proclaim that Jesus is here – in our midst – in this great cathedral. While we can’t see and touch him any more than his disciples did once he had vanished from their sight – he continues to speak to us in the Word of God proclaimed, in our shared fellowship, and in the Eucharist, the sacrament of his body and blood. He is here. He is present to us. And he is as alive as our hearts give him room to live.
If we can so affirm that Jesus is our midst, why would we doubt for a moment that our loved ones who have died are also present?
Saint Paul dispels any such doubts rather directly in this evening’s second reading from his letter to the Church of Rome. If we have been baptized into Jesus’ death – if we have died with him to sin and embraced his self-giving love – we believe that we will also live with him. And we do! The simple blessing of our faith assures us of this reality.
What a great source of consolation! … Yet take care, my friends, that as we seek encouragement from the words of Saint Paul, we continue to embrace our baptismal responsibility to put on Christ and to make the example of his self-giving love our own. Jesus was raised from the dead because of his selfless sacrifice on the cross for our life and our salvation. In the mystery of God, we will find our peace not solely in memories of departed loved ones, but also in lives of service – lives of selfless love – lives that look beyond ourselves to provide meaning, consolation and hope to those – like us – who suffer, mourn and grieve.
My sisters and brothers, I hope and pray that this time of worship is a moment of blessing for you. I hope and pray that through faith, we come to appreciate that we are united forever, not only to the Risen Jesus, but to the great communion of saints who are a part of his body – the Church – the saints of this world and the next – the saints whom we know as our daughters and sons, our husbands and wives, our mothers and fathers, our sisters, brothers and friends who have passed into the eternity of God – and for whom we pray this day.