Mass of Remembrance

Scripture Readings: 1 Cor 15:51-57;  Luke 7:11-17

“It is good for us to be here.” That is a profoundly Christian sentiment. Peter said that on the Mountain of Transfiguration. He also said, “Let me build a tent.” So here we are, all in a single tent, together. It is the goodness of being together here, in the presence of the One who loves us and who is the Cause of our Joy, Jesus Christ, dead and risen from the dead for us.

The monks of New Melleray Abbey are humbly grateful that you have responded to our invitation to join us in this Mass of Remembrance. In the context of this sacramental re-presentation of the death and resurrection of the Lord, we remember all our brothers and sisters, your loved ones, who in the preceding year have been buried in a casket or urn from Trappist Caskets.

This Mass of Remembrance is a celebration of Life; not, I have to say, though, a celebration of the terrestrial life of our departed loved ones, however precious and noble their lives may have been. Birthdays are for celebrating life in that way, and besides, we must admit, the disappointment and pain around the life of most of us would necessarily temper any honest celebration of its nobility and splendor.  Saint Gregory the Great talks about death: “Simply by living in the world we are daily coming to an end. We pass along this present life as though wearing a track in a road.”

We can affirm this, especially in the face of the death of one we love, and in the face of our own experience of mortality: illness, aging, habitual sin. “Every day that we pass of our life,” Gregory continues, “we are, as it were, on our journey approaching the appointed spot. The very increase of our years is wearing them away. Every moment of every day that we live, we are constantly passing away from life, and the length of our life decreases by the very means by which it is believed to increase” (Mor in Iob 25.3.4).  Here, instead, it is the life of Life that we celebrate, the enduring Life of the Risen Lord that heals, redeems, and frees. 

I can imagine some, maybe many, of our contemporaries looking at us in this tent. I can imagine them saying, “How dare they?— how dare they gather on the edge of cornfields in eastern Iowa, monks outside our cloister, other folk from near and far,  to celebrate a Mass of Remembrance—how dare they, the echoes of the Las Vegas shooting still ringing across the land, Death grinning mockingly from cancer clinics, drug crisis centers, abortion clinics, and assisted suicide salons—how dare they gather in this fragile, impotent way to say in the face of it, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory, Where, oh Death, is your sting?’ ” How dare we? We answer, “How dare we not?” 

Our first reading called death an enemy. Enemies may be inevitable, but every mechanism of our body is designed not to tolerate them but to defeat them. You notice what Jesus did not say to the mother going to bury her son. He did not say, “Don’t cry. Your son’s in a better place.” No.  He raised him from his dead state, and gave him to his mother, the best place he had ever known, the place that saw his life begin. Jesus did not say to Mary and Martha about their brother and his friend, Lazarus, “Well, let’s be grateful; he is better off.” Rather, Jesus said nothing. Nothing can be said. Jesus wept. And then he raised Lazarus again to life: “Unbind him, let him go.”

So we gather here and dare to proclaim the victory of Life over the enemy of death through our Lord Jesus Christ. It is a fragile thing to do, but not futile, for our gathering in faith and hope is a word not defiant but kindly reproving that death does not get the last word; we make a declaration of life and hope that our culture—our media, our music, our movies—thirsts and longs for without words to express the longing, except they hear what we just heard, that Jesus had compassion and said, “Young man, I say to you arise.” It is the compassion that is the antidote of cynical despair.

“May the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace.” This is an ancient Christ prayer. We monks say this prayer a half-dozen times a day. We know that among those departed we pray for are our brothers and sisters buried in Trappist Caskets and Urns. “May they rest in peace.”  But peace implies communion. One alone cannot be at peace, but only undisturbed and only that until his willful isolation begins to disturb him relentlessly. To rest in peace means to abide in the pleasure of friendship with God and with all whom God loves, who are all whom he has made. To rest in peace means finally to have become fully human, happy, and wholly embraced and embracing, you with an improbable gathering of glorious companions: like the tree we plant for each person buried in at Trappist Casket or Urn flourishing in a forest of companion trees, sharing and exchanging with them the elements of life.

Saint Francis included this verse in his canticle of the Creatures: “All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Death, from whose embrace no mortal can escape. . . .  Happy those she finds doing your will! Praise and bless my Lord, and give him thanks. And serve him with great humility.” We mourners and loved ones join today to offer that praise, even for Sister Death, to the author of life and the One whose first word is “Let it be,” and whose last word is  “Arise.”