A little while ago I attended a seminar. At the end of the day, after all the talks and following dinner, some us got together for some libations and informal conversation. One of the women related a story where a relative of hers had recently passed away. That particular side of the family had no religious affiliation. Because of this, there seemed to be no urgency to bury the relative. Members of the other side of the family were devout Catholics. They found this not only upsetting but even bewildering. When someone passed away, family members would come together. They would celebrate the life of the deceased person within the context of Mass and a family gathering.
I mentioned my own family practice that I recalled from years ago. My families were Slovak Lutheran and Slovak Catholic. When someone died, people would begin to arrive and gather at my grandmother’s house in the afternoon or in the evening of the first day. The rest of the relatives would arrive early the next morning. Mass or a church ceremony was held in the afternoon. Following the religious ceremony, everyone returned to my grandmother’s house. One of the most striking memories I had about this celebration was the smell of garlic. When you walked into the house, the place smelled of fresh kielbasa as well as other traditional Slovak foods. People would begin telling stories recounting the deceased person’s life. Soon the house was filled with joy and laughter.
Bob, the keynote presenter at the seminar, recalled a story about his father. His dad was a war veteran and a practicing pharmacist. When the Bob was a young boy, his father would often attend the funerals of fellow comrades. Being World War II veterans, full military honors were often on display at the graveside. Each time there was the folding of the American flag and a 21-gun salute. For a young boy, the firing of the rifles was naturally rather striking. One day the boy asked his dad “Why don’t they let you shoot a rifle? “The father answered. “I don’t know how. I was a pharmacist. I was back in the dispensary providing medications for the soldiers. I never got the fire a gun.”
At some point, one of the officers who used to attend to the burial details noticed this about Bob’s father. He gave him the task to play “Taps” after the salute. The problem was that Bob’s dad didn’t know how to play trumpet. So they made an arrangement that, after the salute, the officer would call out, “Comrade bugler!” With that, Bob’s dad would step forward with a tape recorder, press the button and the recorder would play taps.
Years later, Bob’s father passed away. Full military honors were provided. After the salute, the officer called out, “Comrade bugler!” Nothing happened. The office called out a second time, “Comrade bugler!” Nothing happened. A third time the office called out “Comrade bugler!” With that, another solder stepped forward (this time with a CD player, however), pressed the button and played “Taps.”
The combination of the silence and the ceremony, the repetition of the order, having no one step forward, all played tribute to the missing comrade who had done a noble service to so many soldiers for many years.
At this moment, Amy, a young recent graduate student jumped up and excitedly said, “Don’t you know what you guys were talking about?” We looked at her rather inquisitively and then she said, “You’re talking about Eucharist! You’re talking about people who lived a full life. At some point in their lives they began to deteriorate. They experienced their own passion and died. Afterward you “resurrected” their memory with your stories and you did it around a table and with a meal. You did it within the context of rites and ritual.
It was a rather profound insight and we all were silent for a while, sitting within a moment of the mystery.
Yesterday was the feast of St. Clare of Assisi. Clare wrote that, when we go to Christ, it is like looking in a mirror. Christ reflects an image of us to ourselves. It’s usually not a pretty picture. We see it and think, “We have a lot of work to do.” This applies whether it is an individual, or involves recent events involving church leadership or the Church at large. But Christ doesn’t stare at us with a stern look waiting to chastise our failures. He is waiting for the next statement from us which is ….”I can’t do this on my own. I need your help.” That’s when Christ turns to us with mercy and tenderness. As Clare writes,
What wondrous humility, what marvelous poverty! The King of angels, the Lord of heaven and earth. In the depths of this very mirror, ponder his unspeakable love which caused him to suffer on the wood of the cross and to endure the most shameful kind of death. Consider also his indescribable delights, his unending riches, and honors, and sigh for what is beyond your love and heart’s content as you cry out: “Draw me on! We will run after you in the perfume of your ointment, heavenly spouse. Let me run and not faint until you lead me into your wine cellar; your left hand rests under my head, your right arm joyfully embraces me, and you kiss me with the sweet kiss of your lips.” As you rest in this state of contemplation, know that I have indelibly written your happy memory into my heart, for you are dearer to me than all the others.
When it comes to the ugliness of life, whether it is in our Church or in ourselves, there is a choice. We will transform it or transfer it. We can either bring this stuff to Christ and let him transfer it, change it, redeem it… or we will spew it out upon others. This is what Christ, the Bread of Life is about. He asks us to bring all of the ugliness to him. Christ then sacrifices it, on a table, in the midst of a meal, surrounded by family. What comes out is something of joy and hope.
Audio version of the homily is here: