Thursday, July 26, 2018

A funeral homily on suffering

Readings: Wisdom 3:1-9; Romans 8:31-35.37-39; John 17:24-26

Faith requires an object. It is impossible to just have faith, which amounts to something like having faith in faith, which is faith in nothing at all. To have faith means to believe in something or someone. When used in a generic religious sense, faith means to believe in God. Very often when we speak of “believing in God” we simply refer to the fact that God exists. Yet, when we speak of having faith in another person, we mean more than that the person simply exists, which is a given. Saying you have faith in another person means you deem that person to be someone on whom you can rely, you come to have faith in her reliability through experience.

There is a Jewish rabbinical saying that insists “God’s existence is verified by his servants.” The servant of God, par excellence, is Jesus Christ. He is reliable. In the same way you can verify the reliability of another person you can verify Jesus’s reliability - because he is a person - through experience. You cannot verify Jesus’s reliability by using what you want as your criteria, however. Understandably, this is where faith becomes very challenging for many people. For some people, it can be an insurmountable obstacle.

In the New American Bible, the version of the Bible from which our Mass readings are taken, the section of the third chapter of the Book of Wisdom from which our first reading comes falls under the heading “On Suffering.” The Buddha was correct in his observation that to live is to suffer in some way, or in multiple ways. But it does not take a lot of experience of the world to quickly see that some people suffer more than others, to see that some people suffer their whole lives through, to see that some people, it seems, are born to suffer. What can I say, except that this a great mystery? For many of us, love is the greatest source of suffering. Because in order to truly live you must love and to love another is to suffer. We call the suffering wrought by our love for another person compassion.

God’s answer to the problem of suffering is Jesus Christ and him crucified. In her novel, Absolute Truths, Susan Howatch’s character Martin Darrow says to another of her characters, Bishop Charles Ashworth:
It makes all the difference to know there's someone else screaming alongside you - and that's the point of the Incarnation, I can see that so clearly now. God came into the world and screamed alongside us
The Incarnation conceived of as God entering into the world to scream alongside us is not too far from what the Kenotic Hymn St. Paul used in his Letter the Philippians describes: “he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). Prior to his excursus on the Incarnation, Martin said, “God, isn’t life bloody sometimes?” To which the circumspect Bishop Ashworth simply replies, “Yes.”

For obvious reasons, it is very difficult for us to see how suffering, either our own or someone else’s, especially the suffering of someone we love very much, can be understood as a blessing. It can seem like blasphemy to assert that suffering is ever a blessing. Yet, just as gold is purified “in the furnace,” the inspired author of Wisdom tells us, it is through suffering that God purifies his elect, making them, by means of their suffering, “as sacrificial offerings” (Wis 3:6). It is important to tread lightly on this terrain: God is not the immediate cause of any suffering. Rather, God is at work making silk purses out of sow’s ears, or, to cite the Psalmist, turning our mourning into dancing (Ps 30:12).

"A Portrait of Julian," painted by his younger sister. He was 33 when he passed over with Christ to life through death last week. His funeral was today


Our best proof that God is able to use suffering to accomplish his purposes in and for the world is that he did not spare his own Son from suffering and God's Son, out of love for the Father and for us, willingly embraced his passion and death. St. Paul, in our reading from his Letter to the Romans, asks, even if rhetorically: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” As proof that God is for us, the Apostle asks, again rhetorically: “He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him?” I am afraid that perhaps the premier way to really experience the faithfulness of God in Christ by the power of the Spirit is through suffering. After all, Jesus invites us to follow him by taking up the cross (See Matthew 10:38; 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23; 14:27).

“It is Christ,” Paul insists, “who died, rather, was raised, who also is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.” This means that love is not just as strong as death, love conquers death. “What will separate us from the love of Christ,” the Apostle asks, “Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?” “No,” he insists, “in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us.” It runs very much against our natural tendencies, not to mention the swift current of contemporary society, to accept that we conquer by letting ourselves be vanquished for the love of God and neighbor. “Those who trust in [God] shall understand truth,” the Book of Wisdom tells us, and they “shall abide with him in love.”

It is by participating in Jesus’s dying and rising from the dead that you experience for yourself Jesus’s reliability, making him worthy not only of your faith but of your hope and of your love too. Of course, Julian, as we will be reminded when we sprinkle his earthly remains with water from the font at the end of this liturgy at the end of this liturgy, died, was buried, and rose with Christ in Baptism. Through this dying and rising, Jesus united Julian to the Father by the power of their Holy Spirit. This is an unbreakable bond, one that, far from being severed by death, is strengthened by death. Through the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, in which Julian was immersed, his suffering was not pointless; it was redemptive.

In our Gospel reading, taken from what is typically called Jesus’s High Priestly prayer, our Lord, praying to his Father, says of those whom the Father has entrusted to him, which extends to everyone who has been baptized: “they are your gift to me” (John 17:24). Through this and every Eucharist, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus makes “us an everlasting gift to” the Father, which enables “us to share in the inheritance of [God’s] saints… on whose constant intercession we rely for help” (Roman Missal, Eucharistic Prayer III, sec. 113).

Through this Eucharist, we implore the help of our Blessed Mother, the Virgin Mary, who accompanies her children through “this valley of tears,” St. Joseph, St. Mary Magdalene and all the saints on Julian’s behalf. May he be free of suffering forever. Rejoicing in the arms of our Savior, may Julian proclaim his salvation to the everlasting glory of God- Free at last, Free at last, Thank God almighty I am free at last!

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