“When Christ calls a man he bids him to come and die.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Knowing that the funeral of Pope John Paul II was going to start at 12:30am last night, I gave it my best effort to get everything done I needed to do, in order that I may watch it uninterrupted. For many of you, there are probably not many interruptions at 12:30am, but for me, a night owl, there is always plenty to do. And working with college students tends to keep me up late…not unusual to get those 12-1am random calls. Not for emergencies, but just to say hi and chat, since they know I am usually up.
But no matter how hard I tried to stay up, I eventually dozed off at 2am during the homily. It’s not unusual for me to doze off during a homily or sermon (just kidding), but I thought I would make it. I guess I will just have to watch the re-runs though.
For some reason I have always loved watching funerals. From those who are not famous, to those on TV, or in the movies, or to those of super stature, such as the Pope. Death has a very equalizing effect on us, and funerals are the demonstration of that effect. No matter what we have accomplished, or what we have attained, death comes to everyone.
Maybe I have always been very interested in funerals because I have been to many…too many. I have been to my mom’s funeral when I was 11…and was later a pallbearer at the funeral of her sister who died of breast cancer as well when I was 26. Because of those experiences I easily enter into the experience of death, and the emotions of those present at a funeral or graveside service. That was why I sat glued to the TV set during the funeral of Princess Diana, and was able to weep and grieve for her two sons as they followed her casket under such close scrutiny. That’s why I was able to weep and be filled with joy when I was in Calcutta, India during Mother Theresa’s funeral. If you do not think death has an equalizing effect, then you did not take notice of the diversity of people, rich and poor, at her funeral.
I have watched some amazing funerals from Richard Nixon’s, to President Reagan’s (on TV of course), and I think I am struck by many things, from the mourning, to the celebrating, to the symbolism.
I was struck by many things last night, but I had the overwhelming thought that we will never see anything like this again in our lifetime. Never again will we see so many world leaders together in one place; or so many religous leaders; or so many pilgrims. This Pope had the power to unify people in the midst of their differences. As I watched the service I was fillled with a sense of awe and reverence that I rarely feel in our own churches. The dignity, and reverence, and attention to detail that was carried out brought chills to my body. You don’t get the sense that we are as careful, or stand in as much awe at times with the Word of God, as did these people. We walk into church and often completely ignore the sacredness of such a place, and mainly in the name of being hip and cool and casual and relevant. But to watch this ceremony I was brought to complete awe as I imagined what it must have been like in OT days to carry out the instructions of the LORD to such detail…such as in the building of Solomon’s temple, or in the return of the ark. I was blown away by the beauty of the art and sculptures of Michelangelo and others, who created for the sake of beauty (and sometimes some pressure), and who took years and decades to complete a piece of art. Very different from our multi-purpose sanctuaries that we throw up overnight.
As Christians, funerals are much more than death, they are a celebration of a life well lived, and an opportunity to celebrate in the resurrected life. Paul reminds us in I Corinthians 15:12-19 of the importance of the resurrection, and that if we do not believe in the resurrection, then “Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”
But in watching this funeral last night I was reminded again of life that remains beyond our earthly state, and no one has brought that more to my attention than Pope John Paul II. I was struck by his desire to not be elbalmed, and to basically waste away in front of our eyes daily…a reminder that our body may waste away, but that our soul, our spirit, lives with God in heaven.
I remember when my mother passed away with very vivid detail…much more than I will share here. But I remember that early Sunday morning, as my dad came back from the hospital to let us know that my mom had passed away. She had been struggling for years. And I remember very vividly the anger, or sorrow that filled my brother and I as my dad wanted to take us to see my mom one last time. My brother and I did not want to go, but my dad insisted that we should, and that though we didn’t understand now, we would one day appreciate going.
I remember standing in the hospital room looking at my mom’s lifeless and pale body as everyone stood around her. It was a terrible thing for any child to have to see. But years later I am glad that my dad took my brother and I, because it is a reminder to me that though my mom’s physical body had finally worn down, her spirit and soul was more alive than it had ever been. It was a reminder to me of the resurrected life. “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where O death, is your victory? Where O death, is your sting?” (I Corinthians 15:54-55). Out of death comes life…resurrected life.
But not everyone will get that. This mystery. This life out of death. Most will look at the Pope as someone who died in weakness, and had nothing to hand over in the way of possessions to people. But for those who know Christ, the life and death of Pope John Paul II is a powerful and vivid reminder of what it means to daily pick up our crosses and to follow Christ. To submit ourselves to the Lord in obedience. To not store up riches here on earth, but in heaven. As a reminder that real life, life abundantly is beyond this earth. A reminder that we need an eternal perspective, not simply an earthly one.
I believe the funeral of Pope John Paul II last night was a little glimpse of what heaven will be like one day. We get a beautiful scene in Revelation 7:9-17 of what the gathering of all people will be like.
Revelation 7:9-17 (New International Version)
The Great Multitude in White Robes
9 After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” 11 And the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying: “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”
13 Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robesâwho are they, and where did they come from?”
14I answered, “Sir, you know.”
And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 Therefore, “they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. 16 Never again will they hunger;never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. 17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd;he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Hugh Hewitt links from his site these beautiful and closing words from the homily last night.
Cardinal Ratzinger’s homily is a wonderful salute to John Paul II. It ends this way:
“He interpreted for us the paschal mystery as a mystery of divine mercy. In his last book, he wrote: The limit imposed upon evil “is ultimately Divine Mercy” (“Memory and Identity,” p. 60-61). And reflecting on the assassination attempt, he said: “In sacrificing himself for us all, Christ gave a new meaning to suffering, opening up a new dimension, a new order: the order of love …. It is this suffering which burns and consumes evil with the flame of love and draws forth even from sin a great flowering of good.” Impelled by this vision, the Pope suffered and loved in communion with Christ, and that is why the message of his suffering and his silence proved so eloquent and so fruitful.
Divine Mercy: the Holy Father found the purest reflection of God’s mercy in the Mother of God. He who at an early age had lost his own mother, loved his divine mother all the more. He heard the words of the crucified Lord as addressed personally to him: “Behold your Mother.” And so he did as the beloved disciple did: he took her into his own home;” (John 19:27)
— Totus tuus. And from the mother he learned to conform himself to Christ.
None of us can ever forget how in that last Easter Sunday of his life, the Holy Father, marked by suffering, came once more to the window of the Apostolic Palace and one last time gave his blessing urbi et orbi. We can be sure that our beloved pope is standing today at the window of the Father’s house, that he sees us and blesses us. Yes, bless us, Holy Father. We entrust your dear soul to the Mother of God, your Mother, who guided you each day and who will guide you now to the eternal glory of her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.”