Stand ready (2016)
Fr. Martin Fuchs´s sermon on 28th August 2016 in Prague, Czech republic
Today's gospel shows us two large processions, the first one being a procession of mourning and death which leaves the city of Naim. A widow lost her only son. She cries because she is in great destitution. Years ago God had already taken away her husband from her. At that time she had had at least the consolation of still having her son as a mainstay. But now God had also required this sacrifice from her and thus withdrawn the basis of her existence.
The second procession goes in the opposite direction, the procession full of joy and life, directed by the Saviour. Many people follow Him who had heard His words and seen the miracles which He had worked. When seeing the procession of mourning, the Saviour takes compassion on the widow and says to her: “Don´t cry!” He then steps by the bier of the young man and raises him from the dead.
These two processions are symbols for the Christian life and death. How often we have to bury someone much too early?! It is a procession of death but we know that we will meet God when we have to follow such a procession.
Also today the Saviour changes the procession of mourning into a procession of joy. Saint Paul therefore says in his first epistle to the Thessalonians (4:12-16): “...that you be not sorrowful, even as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died, and rose again; even so them who have slept through Jesus, will God bring with him...and the dead who are in Christ, shall rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, shall be taken up together with them in the clouds to meet Christ, into the air, and so shall we be always with the Lord.“
And in the preface of the funeral Mass it says: “In Christ there has dawned for us the hope of a blessed resurrection, heartening with a promise of immortality to come to those of us who are saddened by the certainty of dying. The life of those who are faithful to thee, Lord, is but changed, not ended.“
Let us have a look at the Christian funeral:
- In most countries the deceased is washed first, then dressed in the clothes of his rank and put into the coffin.In Italy, if the deceased was married, they put him into the coffin dressed in his wedding suit. The day of the death should be the most important day in anyone´s life.A priest is always buried in a violet chasuble, and a bishop as well including mitre and episcopal crook. Violet is the colour of penance and usually the deceased still has to pay penalty for his sins in the purgatory.A monk or a nun are buried in their frock, except when special orders are given in the rule.The clothes of the rank indicate that the deceased will be judged according to the duties of his state.By the way: When somebody is to be canonized, the virtues of his state are scrutinized: “How did the servant of God fulfil the duties of his state?“The coffin reminds us of Noah's ark by which the deceased will be rescued from the Deluge of the world and put on the mountain of a better life.A crucifix and a rosary, the most precious objects of a Christian, will be put in the hands of the deceased and his hands will be folded for prayer. This is a silent wish that the deceased may soon come to eternal worship.In former times the deceased lied in state at home and family and neighbours kept the deathwatch, praying day and night until the funeral took place.
- Candles are lit around the bier, because we wish the deceased might soon get to God, the eternal light. “O Lord, give him the eternal rest and the eternal light may shine to him.“They already buried Saint Cyprian who was beheaded in the 3rd century for the sake of Christ, holding candles and singing chorals.
- By aspersing him with holy water, we wish the deceased that the prayers of the Church may purify him from his sins. Properly speaking the time of grace and merits, i. e. doing good deeds, receiving sacraments ends with the death. The only thing we can do is to pray and to devote the prayers of the Church to the deceased which is also done by aspersing him with holy water.
- The Christian will be incensed because he had been or should have been a living monstrance when he received the Holy Communion and a scent by virtue of his Christian vocation.
- The deceased will be conducted to the church with the blessings of the Church, with bells ringing and with the prayers of the people.
- The procession, the crucifix with the banner at the head, is a symbol for the entry of the soul into the eternal bliss. The crucifix with the Redeemer is carried in front of the procession because He, by His death and His resurrection, triumphed over death and sin in our favour.
- We pray and sing during this procession - we do not chat! - in order to obtain remission for the sins of the deceased. This custom comes from the apostles who buried Saint Stephen singing psalms and hymns of praise. When attending a funeral we should dress in a decent way and according to the occasion since we go to church and cemetery which are sanctified places. In former times the family of the deceased, as a sign of mourning, had to wear black clothes for a whole year until the anniversary. A widow or a widower who remarried during this time caused a scandal.
- We ring the bells in order to admonish the faithful to pray. We ring them for deceased adults so that they may soon reach eternal rest, for deceased children in order to thank God that he had saved them from the dangers and temptations of life.
- The coffin, facing the altar if the deceased was a layman, will then be placed in the church for the last Holy Mass in his presence. The coffin of a priest, however, will face the congregation, just as if he appealed to his faithful for the last time.
- The colour for the Holy Mass is black, the colour of mourning. The requiem is not a mass of Resurrection; the white colour, a colour of joy, is therefore inappropriate. At the time of the funeral we do not know whether the deceased will rise for life or for judgement. We certainly wish that he will rise for life, but it is not certain, except for a child who died in the innocence of baptism. In such a case the colour of the mass is white.
- The mass for the dead is followed by the funeral. As Catholics we insist on a burial since our bodies are members of Christ and temples of the Holy Spirit. So it is right and proper that our bodies are hold sacred even after our death and protected from any degradation by men or animals. Furthermore this kind of funeral shall remind man of his origin: “Remember, man that you are dust, and into dust you will return.“ Even the Saviour who died on the cross was buried. According to the words of the Saviour the body is a seed-corn which has to be put in the earth in order to bear fruit. In German speaking areas the cemetery is also called “God's acre“ because the seed of God is spread there.
- A cross is then erected on the grave. A cross has always been erected on graves, even on the most simple one like in the graveyard of a monastery or in military cemeteries. This is a last testimony that the deceased had lived as a Catholic, as a Christian, and that he died as a Christian.Why and to whom did the Catholic Church refuse a solemn funeral in former times?
- It refused the Catholic funeral to those who are not baptised since they are not members of the Catholic Church and therefore have no part in the rights, honours, and duties of its members.
- It refused it to the unbelievers, to those who renounced their faith, to the misbelievers, to the schismatics and to those who were punished by excommunication. The unbelievers were not members of the Church and the others turned away from the Church by their own fault and thus deprived themselves of the ecclesiastical blessings.
- It refused the Catholic funeral to persons who committed suicide, to public sinners, to those who did not fulfil their Easter duty and also to those who lived in concubinage or in civil marriage only, if they died without penitence. These deceased are dead members of the Church and therefore she cannot bury them with her honours and blessings.
- The Church refused it to those who had died in a duel or as a result of a duel.
- The Church does not do these persons wrong by refusing them the Catholic funeral because they did not live in a Christian manner and died without penitence.Let us pray that these persons may be able to make an act of contrition before they die. If they are able to confess, the priest then will ask them to revoke in the presence of two witnesses.In this case the Church permits an ecclesiastical funeral because the priest can inform the community and apologize for the scandal caused by the deceased.Let us not deal with non-Christian theories like near-death experiences, transmigration of souls, etc.Nowadays people like to answer themselves all questions of what may come after death. But these are just theories which cannot be proved at all. They set people's minds at ease and they continue to live like they did in the past.The revelation gives us the answer of what we have to do! Let us be prepared like the New Testament recommends again and again: “You too, must stand ready; the Son of Man will come at an hour when you are not expecting him.” (Luc 12:40)