I got there early, one of the first, because my son was serving at the altar and my daughter was singing with the cantor.
I sat in the back and prayed. Breathing deeply I took in the stained glass windows, the wood work, the altar piece. And I watched people come in. Old people who wore their grief like a garment. High schoolers fidgeting uncomfortably in dress clothes they scarcely ever wear. Friends embraced each other in the knowing without the telling. Then we sat in near silence. Just me and hundreds of other people. Sitting in the grief.
When her casket came in the back by the Holy Water, I looked over her at my son, almost her same age, in altar vestments, eyes full of tears. Father sprinkled Holy Water over her and said, “Sixteen years ago she died….with Christ in baptism. Now she is raised in the newest of life with Christ.”
As the casket was born to the altar I could hear my sweet daughter’s voice singing Be Not Afraid.
And then the familiar words of the service began.
“The Lord be with you….”
“And with your spirit…”
The readings, the responses, the familiar prayers that fit like a favorite sweater on a winter day.
“Thanks be to God…”
“It is right and just…”
We stood, we sat, we rose, we knelt. We said, “Peace by with you,” to strangers who mourned.
And in the middle of this, I felt so grateful. Profound, overwhelming gratefulness washed over me like steady waves of the faithful sea. I am grateful for religion.
One might be tempted to think they don’t need it. On the day-to-day in all its rote tasks, we can very well do without it. Religion seems to complicate the day-to-day. It seems to be confining when it doesn’t allow us to indulge our whims and desires. It seems unnecessary when what really matters is bills and reports and errands and to-do lists and social media. Religion seems excessively binding….
That is until it is the only thing holding you together.
The beauty and mystery of religion creates a space for days like yesterday. Days when the pain hangs thick in the air and when there are no easy answers and when you have forgotten how to pray and don’t know what to say.
In those moments there is a holy and mysterious infrastructure that receives you. You don’t know what to say? The Holy Spirit does. You don’t have words? Holy Mother Church has provided ones for this moment. Deep down you know them. You have been saying them from your youth. Maybe at the time you learned them they didn’t mean much, but in this moment they are the only thing you have to hold onto.
“….only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”
Waves and waves of gratefulness. Waves and waves of grace.
Then Father said, “I am not here today to try to talk you out of your grief and anger…” And he went on to articulate what no one wanted to say. The shock, the hurt, the anger. Religion gives space for that too. You don’t have to keep a stiff upper lip for Jesus. Our Savior walked among us and had the same dirty feet.
A year ago my pastor said, “Faith doesn’t mean we have all the answers. It means we are not scared away by the questions.” Sometimes those questions are large and looming.
In reading the Psalms there is the entire breadth of human emotion and experience, from euphoric joy to bone crushing pain and despair. The Psalmist seems exuberant and depressed by turns. In reading Scripture it is tempting to read looking for what applies to me, for the words that fit my current situation. The Psalms aren’t like that, though. Instead they unite me with the world around us. I might not currently be feeling despair, but one of my brothers or sisters is. I can pray in that despair and give their sorrow a voice when they can do no more than groan. In allowing the Holy Spirit to guide us through Scriptures, giving willing consent to unite our will and hearts with others we participate in the Holy Spirit’s work. “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” Romans 8:26-27
Everyone always talks about your “personal relationship with God.” And while I am glad that Jesus is my friend and older Brother and Savior, I am also tremendously grateful that my faith is not just about my personal relationship. We are a community of faith. A Communion. A family. A body. A Church. When those pivotal moments come—be it death or birth or marriage or holy vows or healing and reconciliation—we are not alone.
It’s that hand that reaches out and without words says, “I am willing to sit here with you in this sorrow.” That.
It’s the humility of receiving from that common cup—sometimes a cup of joy, sometimes of sanctification, sometimes of the deepest longing. But, always in common. This right here.
It’s the believing when not knowing, the hoping while despairing, the now and the not yet, the expecting while waiting for that last day when death is finally swallowed up in the final victory.
All these thoughts while siting at a funeral of a child, a place no one ever would choose to be, but part of the fabric of life made beautiful by a religion that gives context to every. single. thing.