Friday, August 21, 2020


This is the twenty-fifth in a series of periodic reflections on the "ordinary things" that many people do on a regular basis without much thought. During this pandemic, I am developing a need to "rage, rage" against haste and laziness and replace it with care and attention. My hope is to become personally more intentional about doing ordinary things with care and focused attention, while inspiring others to maybe do the same.



Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus.

Hebrews 12:1-4

During this pandemic, I have had at least four graveside funeral services, rather than traditional funeral Masses inside a church. As I prepared a homily for my first cousin who was buried in Saint Mary Magdalen Church in Payneville, Kentucky, I was struck by the fact that cemeteries are called "consecrated" ground for a reason. Here are some of the thoughts I shared with the people who attended his funeral. 

My dear family and friends! We are standing on holy ground! We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses – those who have gone before us after they have completed their time here on earth! Our parents, siblings, uncles and aunts, our neighbors, our friends and our fellow parishioners are buried here! Yes, this is holy ground! Here lie the relics of some powerful saints with whom we share DNA and endless memories! 

Yes, make no mistake about it! This is holy ground and we are surrounded by a cloud of witness who have faithfully lived the Christian faith in this community.  They were good, good, good people! If most of them are not saints by now, then I don’t have much of a chance! Let’s be clear about one thing! We are burying another family member in holy ground! 

As I was preparing this homily, I thought of a reliquary that someone gave me a few years ago. It is a large, gold locket with a small door containing a tiny bone fragment of Saint Pius X. A “reliquary” then is something that holds the bones of a saint. This cemetery, this holy ground that we stand on today, is really one big “reliquary.” It holds the bones of this community’s saints – the bones of our saints! 

Many of you might remember the thriller film, The Sixth Sense, which tells the story of Cole Sear, a troubled, isolated boy, who is able to see and talk to the dead, and an equally troubled child psychologist (played by Bruce Willis), who tries to help him. The most famous lines from the film belong to the young boy. “I see dead people!” 

In a way, that is exactly writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, that I read from today, is telling us when he says, “we are surrounded by a “cloud of witnesses.” In fact, he is saying four things. 

(1) First, he is telling us that living the Christian life is like running a race. It is not a stroll for the lazy and indifferent. It takes the serious discipline of an athlete. We have to train every day of our lives. We have to know where we are going, remain focused, and keep our eyes on the finish line 

(1) Second, he is telling us that there are people “in the stands,” people who have run the race before us and who have already crossed the finish line, who are cheering us on! Can’t you feel their presence right now! This fact challenges us to remember that we are surrounded by a large group of supportive onlookers as we live out our lives as Christians. This is precisely what we mean when we say in our Creed that we believe in the “communion of the saints.” That is so damned easy to say, but today, standing here, I feel it! I, for one, do not actually see dead people, but I do feel their presence, helping me along the way. I believe that I am not alone on my journey of faith, but I am part of a larger story, a great procession of people marching through history. 

(2) Third, he is telling us to “persevere in running the race that lies before us.” Dropping out of the race is always an option, especially for the college students I used to work with when I was chaplain at Bellarmine University. . One of the big questions before the college students I worked with is this one. “Will you abandon the religious upbringing of your childhood or will you choose it for myself of your own free will? Will you persevere in living your Catholic Christian faith or will you simply drop out of the race because it is too hard, because it is too much trouble, because it demands too much, because it is too inconvenient or because others around you are dropping out as well? 

(3) Fourth, he is telling us to “keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.” Distractions are a problem for all of us, no matter how many laps of the race we have completed. There are those who seek to draw our attention away from the race we are running. “Look here! Look over there! Look at me! Look at this! Pay attention to this! Pay attention to that! See this! See that!” If we are to persevere in running this race, we must keep our eyes fixed on the finish line, we must “keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.” As we stand here among our family saints, let us be reminded, in the starkest way possible, that we too will be lying with them someday! We will then be part of this “cloud of witnesses.” We must remain focused on what we are doing and why we are doing, until we hear Jesus say to us at the finish line, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your master!” 

I hope that you have had the time to share your favorite stories about our dear cousin. In your own way, you have shared short “eulogies” about him with each other. “Eulogies” are stories about what the deceased did for God – his professional accomplishments, his educational achievements, his services to the community and his dedication to his family. 

“Eulogies” are popular these days at funerals, but when we list all that the deceased did, we have to be careful. We cannot list them and then conclude that the deceased “earned his way to heaven” by doing all those good deeds. No, they must be seen as a grateful response to God’s free gift of salvation! Nobody can earn salvation! It’s free for the taking! We can’t earn it and we don’t deserve it, but God gives it to us free of charge! 

Priests and deacons, when they speak at funerals, are instructed not to give “eulogies” for that reason. It could give a wrong impression that salvation can be earned by good deeds! They are instructed to give a “homily.” What’s the difference? A “eulogy“ is all about what the deceased did for God! A “homily” is all about what God did for the deceased! 

I had the honor of hearing my cousin's confession, anointing him and giving him “communion” - "viaticum." "Viaticum" is communion for those who are dying. It means "something you take with you on the way - a packed lunch, if you will!" It is  bread for his journey through death to new life - the very Body of Christ himself.  Our cousin may not have been a “living saint” while he was here on earth, none of us are, but I believe he is now a “living saint” in heaven, not because of his goodness, but because of God’s goodness! 

When this pandemic gets you down, take a walk through a cemetery. Let that "holy ground" remind you of where you came from, where you are now and where you are headed! Let it remind you that you are not walking alone, but that you are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses cheering you on toward the finish line!  

No comments:

Post a Comment