There’s a story about the soft drinks company Pepsi that tells us a little bit about how we respond to death. According to some sources, and Pepsi have never actually denied this story, the company’s popular American slogan: ‘Come to Life with Pepsi’ was mistranslated in China as ‘Pepsi brings your ancestors back to life’. Now this is some claim. Certainly, Pepsi’s sales in China didn’t improve appreciably. Having a drink that instantly brings your departed loved ones back to the land of the living was probably seen as something of two-edged-sword. I mean, where would we put them?
Now, as you may be aware I know a little bit about death, because by day I am an undertaker. It’s an interesting word, isn’t it? ‘Undertaker? But what do I undertake? It’s really a euphemism, I suppose. We don’t want to be too specific about the role. The word comes into English in the early Tudor period, and can mean one who works in business, or acts as some form of agent. It’s reassuringly vague. I undertake something people don’t really want to name, and that’s understandable. Perhaps best not to mention it, really. If I’m at a dinner party and someone asks what I do for a living –– my response is usually met with an odd glance: ‘Oh. You’re an undertaker. That must be very…err…’ I probably should say: ‘It’s not about what I do for a living. It’s about what I do for the dead’. But I don’t think that’s quite true. My job is to serve both parties.
The word ‘human’ derives from the Latin word for earth: humus. So we may well take our name as a species from the fact that we bury our dead in the ground. In Ancient Egypt, the departed were known as ‘westerners’, from the deserts west of the fertile Nile valley. If a modern American met an Ancient Egyptian and announced they were from ‘the mid-west’, it’s likely they would be met with – at best – a measure of incredulity. The Egyptians, prior to the development of their formal buildings of interment, buried their loved ones in the desert. If the wind or animals uncovered the dead, they would appear to the living as being remarkably intact, since the dry and hot conditions slowed down the process of decay. When the Egyptians made mummies, they were likely honouring that early experience. In the Zoroastrian faith of pre-muslim Iran, the dead were cleaned and laid out on beautiful towers so the flesh could be artfully removed by vultures. This was viewed as a form of spiritual cleansing. And in parts of modern Indonesia, the departed aren’t considered dead until they are buried. They are mummified, then placed in their old room in the house, receiving their favourite meals every day. Burial only takes place when sufficiently lavish plans have been made for the ceremony. Now, these are ‘undertakings’ I might find difficult to understand, and certainly to perform, but they are, of course, deeply important rituals designed to honour the departed, and to ensure safe transition from one place to another. All these practices required somebody to undertake them.
So how do we feel about death? The second Vatican Council states things in this way
’It is in the face of death that the riddle of human existence grows more acute. Not only is man tormented by pain and by the advancing deterioration of his body, but even more so by the dread of perpetual extinction. He rebels against death because he bears in himself an eternal seed which cannot be reduced to sheer matter.
It is something we dread, Shakespeare’s Hamlet asks the audience if it’s better ‘To be, or not to be’. We’ve no idea if anyone in the audience replied, or if lengthy debate ensued. But the hero concludes that death ‘is a consummation devoutly to be wished’. Around the same time, the poet and clergyman John Donne mocked Death in a sonnet that begins ‘Death be not proud, though some have called thee’. The poet seems to be debating with Death, saying his powers aren’t even especially unique: ‘poppy or charms can make us sleep as well, And better than thy stroke’. In Donne’s poem, he shows us that our faith can make nonsense of Death. Our bodies might fail, but the poet concludes: ‘One short sleep past, we wake eternally, And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die’.
If you had a drink that could bring your ancestors back to life, would you give it to them? I don’t think I would because I believe that that moment will happen, just not in this life. The reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians tells us very clearly the reality of the Christian belief about what happens after death Death, he says, came into the world through one man Adam – in other words through man’s sin, but the resurrection of the dead and life eternal comes through another man, Jesus and only through Jesus – for those who belong to him,Christ the King. We know that Jesus is the one who restores our way back to God, and to life eternal. To steal the slogan of the rival beverage: Jesus is ‘the real thing’. He is the ultimate undertaker, in that through his sacrifice on the Cross he undertook to safely convey us from this life to life eternal. Although our lives can be hard, and sometimes seem impossible, The church has been taught by divine revelation and firmly teaches herself that man has been created by God for a blissful purpose which is beyond the reach of earthly misery.
As St Paul writes elsewhere
‘O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ’.
The greatest among you must be your servant. Anyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and anyone who humbles himself will be exalted.’ (Matthew 23:12)
Experiences of humiliation can lead us to become humble but they are not in themselves virtuous; feelings of inferiority can also lead us to humility but they are not in themselves virtuous. Jesus calls us to humility and not to humiliation or inferiority.
My mother had a very simple answer to my inferiority complex! She said you should neither look up to anyone nor look down on anyone and that Jesus is the only one who is perfect.
So in my search for humility I am called to focus on Jesus rather than on self and through Jesus to be taken into the perfect embrace of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – where we encounter love and mercy in its perfection. Humility is born when I have the grace to be still and know that God is God and in His presence I “bow and bend low” in worship.
In His presence I discover who I am and who you are. None of us is either greater or less than the other. As Jesus says when He warns us against self-promotion, “you have only One Father”, One Master, One Teacher and we are all brothers and sisters.
Psalm 131 introduces us to the deepest possible form of humility:
Keep my soul in peace before you, O Lord.
O Lord, my heart is not proud
nor haughty my eyes.
I have not gone after things too great
nor marvels beyond me.
Keep my soul in peace before you, O Lord.
Truly I have set my soul
in silence and peace.
A weaned child on its mother’s breast,
even so is my soul.
Keep my soul in peace before you, O Lord.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
both now and forever.
Keep my soul in peace before you, O Lord.
My heart is not proud! Truly I have set my soul in silence and in peace. A weaned child on its mother’s breast, a child at rest in its mother’s arms, even so my soul! The heart of humility is here and this is who we are called to become – a trustful child in the arms of God.
I have had the grace to hold my five nephews and three nieces in their infancy. It has always been an experience filled with love and emotion. At Mass this morning I was asking the children if they had ever held a baby and a number of girls and boys said yes. “And what did it feel like?” I asked. The boys shrugged their shoulders but the girls said immediately that they felt love and they felt emotional! I guess the boys did too but they didn’t know how to put it into words.
Babies can be trustful and sometimes cautious and restless in the embrace of an adult. I’m thinking of the two youngest because my experiences with them are the most recent and therefore my memories of them are clearer.
Laura was the most chilled baby ever. I often tell her that she was silent for the first six months – until she found her voice and when she found that then there was no stopping her. She would just lay there sleeping or in a dreamlike daze. I have memories of her sound asleep on her father’s shoulder. She represents the kind of trustful abandon that is at the heart of Christian spirituality.
Katie was more alert and less inclined to sleep but I had this experience with her when she was a few months old. I went to visit one Saturday and Elaine was doing the cleaning, so she put Katie into my arms, put me into the sitting room, asked me to look after her and closed the door.
So we sat there on a rocking chair, Katie and me, playing and chatting in the way one does with a baby. And after a while she rested her head on my chest. So I sang to her. Sang songs in Swahili, sang hymns and she fell asleep with her head resting on my chest and she remained like that for over an hour.
This became for me a most precious period of meditation. I simply held her, gazed on her, felt the warmth of her. I was deeply touched by the way she trusted me enough to fall asleep and it seemed in this that God was inviting me to be like her – a child resting trustfully in His arms.
I go back to this from time to time. Each one of us can enter into such an experience in prayer. Simply close your eyes and in the privacy of your soul where only you and God abide. And there you can surrender to Him, be held by him, loved by Him.
In our strength we resist going to such a place within ourselves but Alcoholics Anonymous have discovered that surrender to the Higher Power is essential for recovery. Addicts in recovery understand this too. Our Higher Power is God, revealed to us in Jesus.
It is especially important for us to surrender to the Divine Embrace where we are not well. Another memory from my own childhood is in a time when I was very sick with shingles, my mother took me into bed with Dad and herself and, though she could not take away the pain, could not make me better immediately, I felt secure in her embrace. And it’s the same with God. Not that He cannot take away the pain but He holds us through the necessary experience of pain and sees us through to the other side of it.
Two of our Pallottines – Fathers Phil McNamara and Jose Campion – died in the past couple of days and it strikes me that both their lives are very fine expressions of the Mission of the Church which wr are celebrating today.
As God called King Cyrus by name, so He called Phil and Joe and they responded with all of their lives to that boundless divine stirring, the soundless whisper of God’s voice in the depths of their soul. They left home and country as young men to serve in Christ’s Mission to His people.
The details of the Mission given to each of us are different but it always involves being called personally by name to represent Jesus in this world in whatever sphere of life we are involved in. Ours is a communal calling in the Church, lived out in a uniquely personal way and the most authentic expression of Mission is one that stems from our personal experience of Jesus, an experience that draws us into the mystery of the Trinity.
Fr. Johnny McDonagh, Br. Jim McCartan and Bishop Winters in Galapo
Give to God what belongs to God, is what Jesus tells us in today’s gospel. What belongs to God in the first place is the essence of Who He Is. Not that we can give that to Him, but it is an essential ingredient in Mission to acknowledge and honour who God is. “I am the Lord, unrivalled; there is no other God besides me…that men may know from the rising to the setting of the sun that, apart from me, all is nothing.’” (Isaiah 45:4-6)
Too often we regard God simply in relation to our own needs and, unconsciously, we try to manipulate God into being whatever suits us; we manipulate the “things of God” to suit our own purposes, often forgetting that it is we who are the servants of God rather than vice versa. And then in the mystery of His Love He becomes servant in Jesus and in doing so He shows what is the true quality of Christian service. It is the service of daughters and sons; it is the service of mutual self-giving of lovers.
What is accomplished in the Eucharist is that God gives the fullness of Himself to us in Jesus and we are invited to give all of ourselves in return. “All that I am, all that I do, all that I ever have I offer now to you”, an offertory hymn we sing at Mass. Giving to God means giving my whole self and everything that makes up my life and discovering in the process that by giving away everything I lose nothing and gain everything in return.
The giving of ourselves to God, and in turn to others, in the Mission is always in accordance with the gifts that God has given us – gifts of nature and of grace. God accomplishes His work in us according to who we are, the person He created us to be. I cannot do things as another does and God doesn’t seek to do anything in me that is out of tune with my nature.
When I went to Tanzania in the early 80’s at the age of 26, I was overawed by the work being done by generous and seasoned missionaries in the area of human as well as spiritual development, work that I knew I was incapable of doing. And I was a bit lost for a while.
Then Bishop Patrick Winters came on a visit to Tanzania. He was the retired Bishop of Mbulu, a Galwayman who lived near us at home. I was like a son to him and he clearly saw my limitations and my gifts. When I was appointed to Galapo he advised me to concentrate on preaching the gospel which is what I did.
To my delight I encountered in people a great hunger for the Word of God which was received not only as words but, like St. Paul says, “as power and the Holy Spirit and as utter conviction.”
Utter conviction is a phrase that attracts and challenges me right now. An utter conviction that inspires rather than forces, that appeals rather than demands. An utter conviction first and foremost about the person of Jesus Christ and about the Gospel, the Good News which He himself has given us. He is himself the Gospel, He is the Word. I am utterly convinced of this even if I struggle to communicate that conviction.
I think of the conviction I had when I was a boy, the intense hunger I had for Jesus and, what may seem excessive, I used to go to the Augie in Galway on my way home from school and would pray an act of “spiritual communion” even though I might actually have received Communion at Mass that morning.
It’s a prayer that returned to me when I was with Radio Maria Ireland where it was prayed live on air when we celebrated Mass in the studio. Prayed for the benefit of those who would like to attend Mass but were unable to do so, it’s a prayer that can be used by the many who come to Mass but are unable to come to Communion.
“My Jesus, I believe that you are present in the most Blessed Sacrament. I love You above all things and I desire to receive You into my soul. Since I cannot now receive You sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. I embrace You as if You have already come, and unite myself wholly to You. Never permit me to be separated from You. Amen.”
That was the strength of conviction I had as a child and, while I am still utterly convinced, something has been lost along the way. I’m not sure that I can ever recover what was lost but I am certain that it can be found in a new way in my present life. It is the beauty of life in Christ that all is never lost and there is always something new, maybe even something better to be gained as happened at the wedding at Cana.
– Father Eamonn Monson SAC (https://eamonnmonson.blogspot.co.uk/)