The First Reading of the Twenty-eighth Sunday in Year A is one that we often hear at funerals. Isaiah (25: 6-10) describes the reign of God as a banquet at which succulent foods will be served – and (a significant reason for its use in funerals) tears will be wiped away and shrouds destroyed.
Its use in a particularly poignant funeral of two little girls raised thoughts about how those gathered in shock and heart-rending grief might somehow be encountering good news. What could they be hearing – seeing – touching or sensing that could possibly point them beyond the anguish to the hope at the heart of our faith: that death is a change in life not its ending? How might a funeral be an occasion for evangelisation … an occasion in which we tell part of the Christian story in a way which seeps into souls too numb to be aware of receiving anything but yearning for something to cling to? How might seeds of that story germinate months or even years later – and encourage the first step towards becoming part of it?
It is a fact that, for many people, a funeral might be one of the very few occasions that they enter a church. They come with preconceptions – largely based on what they have seen on television or in films. They may come with very limited religious literacy – we can no longer assume that even the Our Father will be known (as the fact that fewer and fewer people now continue into “For thine is the Kingdom…” before petering out into a slightly uncomfortable silence suggests). They may have some memory of what Gran did – and try to emulate. But beyond the preconceptions and the anxieties, people come with longings – let this not be the end. Let something make a bit of sense of this agony I’m in. Let me meet people who know death happens and it feels like hell – who don’t hide it away or expect me to get over it in a couple of weeks. Let me find something big enough to contain what is threatening to overwhelm me and shatter me into a million pieces.
In response to these longings, funerals may be opportunities for a parish community to begin to see itself as an evangelising community – not necessarily in erudite theological argument but in the warmth of its welcome and simple presence supporting family and friends during the service. Bereavement support groups could be encouraged to gently share their own faith if invited – bringing a dimension to their visits that would be inappropriate for professional bereavement counsellors but which can offer solace and hope in dark times.
And a good turnout at Masses for the bereaved, an increasingly popular parish event in November– or cemetery visits – with tea and an opportunity to chat afterwards can all be a powerful witness. They could all contribute to the bereaved person’s sense that here is a community where their pain is not shunned or a source of fear or embarrassment but accepted as part of a much bigger story – one that leads through the darkness of death and utter grief to resurrection.
Those who have loved and lost know what Good Friday and Holy Saturday feel like – and know too the yearning for hope beyond them. The Paschal Mystery at the heart of our faith offers that hope and our sharing of it may start with a simple invitation to come to Mass in November and light a candle in memory of a loved one.
Some seeds of ideas …
This November, draw on some of the traditions of the Church and live them with catechumens and candidates.
Consider ways of using this season of remembrance as a means of evangelising with those who plan the liturgy.
Explore appropriate ways for those involved in bereavement support to act as evangelisers.