August 26, 2012
Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
It’s been almost 20 years since my Uncle Bill died suddenly. As I grew up, Uncle Bill, who married my mother’s sister Barb, was a favorite of mine. He was always ready with a humorous story, and really seemed to enjoy life. Since he lived in our same neighborhood, I guess he was also a favorite merely because we spent so much time with him, my Aunt Barb, and his children, my cousins. Sadly, he was stricken by a massive stroke around his 55th birthday and suddenly died. We were all in shock. My aunt called to invite me to preside at my uncle’s funeral, something I was glad to do in gratitude for my uncle’s goodness to me over the years.
One thing I need to mention about both Bill and Barb—they each have a very deep Catholic faith and put this practice at the center of their lives as the guiding principle of their lives’ choices. You’ll also want to know that my Aunt does not abide others’ dismissing the importance of her faith—she can be fierce when she senses her faith is discounted or, worse, ridiculed.
So, we all gathered two days before the funeral to make “final arrangements” with the funeral director. With Uncle Bill’s sudden death, it was a confusing, dark time. Yet, all seemed to go well, though my aunt certainly wasn’t afraid to speak her peace about what she thought constituted a proper Catholic funeral. The funeral director reacted with patience to all of aunt’s desires, until after a rather lengthy meeting, we had just one final detail to handle: where my Uncle would be buried. Since his death was so unexpected, it turned out that he had not made provision for a burial plot. The funeral director helped by suggesting a nearby cemetery, just a mile from the church. Then my aunt asked, “Is it a Catholic cemetery? Is it consecrated ground?” She was speaking about our Catholic belief that graves are sacred places that we “consecrate,” that is dedicated through the blessing of the church for the purpose of a burial of the body which we consider sacred since it was created by God.
It was clear that, since we had been working for a good long time, the patience of the funeral director was exhausted. To my aunt’s question, “Is it consecrated ground?”, the director said, “There is a Catholic cemetery 10 miles away, but this is a long drive, especially with traffic. Does it really matter that much?” Oh, he really didn’t know my aunt at all!” I can still see how her eyes flashed; I think I might have even seen some steam come out of her ears.
My aunt simply said, “I would like you to transport Bill’s body to another funeral home in town. This meeting is over.” Wow! She’s tough! Don’t mess with Aunt Barb’s Catholic faith! Though all the plans had been nearly completed, we did all the planning again later that day at another funeral home in my uncle’s home town. Needless to say, this new director was careful not to upset my aunt! We then traveled to the cemetery office, the ten miles away, to make arrangements, in the words of my aunt, “for a proper Catholic burial.” What a strange series of circumstances and choices led us to that office. But, things got only stranger!
The director of the cemetery proceeded through a checklist of questions to help make the choice of a plot. Near the end, he asked, “Does Bill have any family members buried here? We all smiled at this question—considering how we had made it to this cemetery. We had planned to choose this cemetery, it was just a fluke that we were there. “No,” my aunt said, “Bill is not from nearby here—I can’t think there would be any family here.” The director understood, but suggested that he might just check to be sure. Knowing my uncle’s last name, he returned to the meeting room with an old card from one of the older parts of the cemetery and asked if we knew a husband and wife, buried there, with the same last name as my uncle. Again, another strong reaction by my aunt. I thought, “uh-oh—here we go again.” My aunt said, with astonishment, “those are Bill’s parents.” Even more astonishing—in this old section of the cemetery, right next to Bill’s parents, was one open grave site. It was here, through an incredible series of choices, that Bill was laid to rest, in sacred ground, next to his parents.
How could we know that the bold choice of my aunt to insist upon what she felt was the proper practice of her faith, to upset all the funeral plans in a stressful time, would lead to such consolation, as the whole family, still reeling from the shocking and unexpected death of my uncle, saw the hand of God guiding my Uncle to a beautiful place of rest, reunited with his parents?
Though an amazing story, in fact, every one of our lives’ decisions have some common ground with this situation. In fact, with even the most common daily decision, we don’t know all the consequences and implications of a choice we make. With each and every choice, we must make a true “leap of faith,” for we cannot know the future or how things might play out.
What my aunt Barb said to herself was this: This is a confusing situation; so, where I can’t see with clarity what is best to be done, I will trust in the guidance of my faith, the Holy Spirit, ultimately the Lord, to show me how to act when I can’t be sure from all I can know now. Only the most skeptical mind would refuse to see the guiding hand of God, bringing my uncle to his parents gravesite as a place of final rest. Certainly none of us could have envisioned this result, when my Aunt chose to follow what she understood were the dictates of her faith.
In today’s gospel, Jesus is trying to guide the people to the place that they can’t see on their own. He wants to guide them to God’s presence, his Body and Blood, which will be given to them over and over again, in the memorial that is the Eucharist, and they, like the people of Israel in the Desert, “murmur about his Bread, this heavenly manna, not being able to accept what Jesus says as being true. They can’t see to be true what Jesus says. Some leave Jesus, return to their old way of life—but as we know, some do trust in Jesus, even though they can’t understand, and begin the Christian faith that today still inspires countless followers of Jesus.
Where circumstances are confusing or troubling, when we don’t know which way to go, the believer trusts in the puts his or her trust in the guidance of faith, the Holy Spirit, and our Church’s teaching. This is a daily reality—in our family life, at our workplaces, behind the wheel of a car. Each day, and in fact, each moment, we have choices to make. We never see all the circumstances or consequences of our choices. In faith, we are called to say—where I can’t see, I trust that my faith will guide my choices. For Jesus’ guidance, though the Church, we have come to believe, as with St. Peter, are words of eternal life from the Holy One of God. Let’s go and choose to be guided by the Lord to the fullness of life. We trust that he knows better than we do.