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Understanding the Funeral Liturgy through Our Baptism and God’s Divine Mercy

Posted : Apr-22-2022

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Fr. Michael McGourty is the pastor of St. Peter’s Parish in Toronto.

Have you ever noticed how people speak to one another when they fall in love? Once they have first gained the courage to tell the other person that they love him or her, they begin to use this expression quite frequently. As it begins to lose some of its impact, they begin to use expressions like “very much,” or “very, very much.” Ultimately, people who are in love tell the other person that they love the other so much that they will love them “forever,” or for “all eternity.” In fact, if the person you love ever tells you that they love you so much that they will love you until next Thursday, you can be pretty sure that your relationship is in trouble.

I have always thought that the fact that we human beings think that we can promise to love a person for all eternity is a great proof for the existence of an eternal God. Why else would human beings, who know that we are finite and can only live for a hundred or a hundred and ten years at the most, think that we can make a promise to love another person forever? I think that we can only make such a promises because we are made in the image and likeness of God and He has put an immortal soul within each of us. In order to make a promise to love someone forever, we are dependent upon God being faithful to His promise to raise us up with Christ. We are only able to make a promise to love another human being forever, because God has been faithful to His promise to love us forever and raise us up in Christ. It is God’s faithfulness to His love that we celebrate this Easter and that the Psalmist proclaims in today’s Psalm response as he exclaims: “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His steadfast love endures forever.” It is because of God’s Divine love — His Divine Mercy — that you and I can hope that we, and our deceased loved ones, will live forever with the Lord.

The Good News that God’s love for us is so strong that He will raise us all up, can be for some Christians so overwhelming that they, like Thomas, find themselves doubting. Can it really be true that Christ has risen and will share with us His resurrection? Like Thomas, we can all need reminders. It is for this reason that Christ has left us the Eucharist to celebrate His resurrection every Sunday. Here at the Sunday Eucharist, He invites us to be strengthened by His Word and the Sacrament of His Body and Blood. Each Sunday, as He comes to us in the Eucharist and stands in our presence, we are called to know His peace and to acknowledge Him, like Thomas, as our Lord and God in our midst. Our yearly celebration of Easter is also a call to recognize the power of God’s love and mercy to change our lives and to destroy death itself. And while every celebration of the Eucharist is a celebration of Divine Mercy, we highlight the power of God’s mercy by celebrating today the solemnity of Divine Mercy on this Second Sunday of the Easter Octave.

The Funeral Liturgy

There is another significant way that we celebrate God’s mercy and the power of God’s love over death and this is through the Church’s funeral rites. The funeral rites of the Church are intended to proclaim God’s mercy and victory over death at a time when individuals and families are struggling the most to believe in the resurrection – at the time of the death of a loved one. Such moments fill many with the same doubts that caused Thomas to doubt that his friend Jesus was alive and had truly risen. In the Church’s funeral rites, the Christian community celebrates God’s mercy and the promises that Christ made to the departed Christian on the day of his or her baptism. In fact, the funeral liturgy is a re-enactment of the individual’s baptism, in which we remember the promises of eternal life that God made to the person on the day that he or she was baptized. It is because the Church’s funeral liturgy borrows so much from our Easter celebrations, and the baptismal liturgy, that I have decided to preach about them this Sunday. Each funeral liturgy is actually a celebration of the Divine Mercy of God as it is applied to the deceased individual at the time of his or her death.

What we do at a person’s funeral is basically re-enact their baptism. The casket of the individual is greeted at the doors of the Church and sprinkled with holy water. This is to remind us of their baptism. A white pall is placed on the casket as a reminder of the white gown that the person wore on the day of his or her baptism. The individual’s casket is placed in front of the altar with the paschal candle at its head. This paschal candle was lit for the first time at the Easter Vigil. When the individual was baptized, he or she received a candle lit from this candle to symbolize the call to make Christ the light of their lives. The candle is placed at the head of the casket to symbolize the baptismal promises of Christ that He will share His victory over death with the deceased individual. Also of great importance is where the body of the deceased person is placed during the funeral liturgy. The casket is placed before the altar to celebrate the Eucharist for the last time with the individual present in the Church. The Eucharist is celebrated to ask God’s mercy for the individual and ask that he or she be admitted through God’s mercy to the Kingdom of Heaven. The body of the individual is present for the last time in the Church on earth as the community entrusts him or her, through God’s mercy, to the Church in Heaven. In the funeral liturgy, we ask that God’s mercy become a reality for our deceased loved ones and that through this mercy they might come to share in the gift of eternal life.

Today, as more and more people are cremated, it is recommended by the Church that the body of the deceased person be brought to the Church for the funeral liturgy before the cremation. However, this is not necessary. Funeral rites are also often celebrated in the presence of ashes. The Church no longer forbids cremation and has allowed it from about the 1960s. The reason why it was not allowed for a while was that many people were having themselves cremated in the 1800s to deny the resurrection. As people no longer have their bodies cremated to deny the resurrection, funeral rites can be celebrated for those who have been cremated. The Church does ask that the cremated remains be interred properly in a cemetery to await the resurrection. Out of respect for the human body, the Church does not believe that ashes should be scattered or taken home. It is amazing the number of forgotten ashes that are found in homes when people move or are brought back to funeral homes without people knowing who they belong to. A priest is not allowed to accompany any family to a service where a person’s ashes are being scattered. They may only assist when ashes are being properly interred in a cemetery.

One of the reasons that I have decided to preach on funerals is due to the increasing number of families that are deciding not to have a funeral for their family members. Sometimes family and children will decide not to have a funeral for a parent who has regularly attended Mass for years. At an estate planning seminar that was held here at the parish shortly before the pandemic broke out, it was recommended that people tell their family members exactly what kind of funeral arrangements they would like to have at the time of their deaths. It was even suggested that they leave a plan in place for their funeral. Bereavement councillors have noted the difficulties that some families suffer after a death when they have not properly celebrated the funeral rites for their deceased loved ones. There is a tendency today to downplay the significance of death and to dispose of the situation and the person as quickly as possible. This only leads to regrets and complications later on as the death of a loved one is never an insignificant event that we can afford to ignore.

This Sunday, as we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday, we are reminded that God invites all of us to share in the gift of eternal life that Christ has won for us. God’s mercy is offered to all of us now as we are invited to turn to God and accept His mercy, forgiveness and salvation. If there are any sins keeping us from experiencing God’s love today, we may experience His mercy today in the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, where He forgives all of our sins. The ultimate expression of God’s mercy is offered to us in His invitation that we each share eternal life with Him. Through His Easter victory over death, Christ has won eternal life for us. On the day of our baptisms we were invited to share in His victory over death and to share in His life. We remember His promises to us in baptism when we celebrate a person’s funeral liturgy. The funeral liturgy prays that God’s Divine Mercy would forgive the sins of our deceased brother or sister and that God would raise him or her up for all eternity. When we celebrate a person’s funeral liturgy, we are comforted and consoled by the promises made to our deceased loved one through baptism and we pray that through God’s Divine Mercy, these promises might be fulfilled for our loved one. Today, as we celebrate the Feast of Divine Mercy, we celebrate the promises that God has made to all of us through His mercy and ask for the grace to persevere in the hope that on the day of our death, these promises will be fulfilled for us. In order that we might find the grace to always hope in the merciful promises of our loving God, let us make our prayer that of the Divine Mercy: “For the sake of His sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.”

Happy Easter!

This homily is based on the readings for the Second Sunday of Easter—Divine Mercy Sunday: Acts 5:12-16; Psalm 118; Revelation 1: 9-13, 17-19; and John 20:19-31