Image: Cemetery in Tsiigehtchic
Over the past ten weeks there have been many deaths in our diocese of both young and old. Though none of these losses have been directly related to COVID-19, the way we were unable to give proper closure to the grieving families was due to the social restrictions brought about by the Pandemic. This has grated harshly against the people’s culture and traditions that are so important to acknowledge during a time of mourning.
The funeral rite for our people usually consists of at least two Masses in the Church when there is a priest available. The wake Mass, preceded by a rosary led by family and friends of the deceased, takes place the evening before the burial, with the Mass of Christian burial taking place the next day. In both cases the church is generally filled to capacity. But the liturgy is only one aspect of the overall ritual.
From the moment the news breaks of the death of a loved one there is, in normal times, a constant stream of visitors to the family home. Food is prepared, and rosaries are prayed, hugs are given, and stories are told. After the final burial there is a major feast to which the whole village turns out, and only then can we say that we have had a proper good-bye. The church certainly plays an important role, but it is only a part. In these small, close-knit communities the people know what is necessary to support one another and social isolation is contrary to that instinct.
It is not just here. Images on television of Mass graves in New York city, unattended by mourners save for the heavy machinery operators tasked with filling the graves are a stark reminder that our loss is shared by others. We are all longing for some resolution to our grief and the ability to say “goodbye” in a proper way.
Turning to our scripture we find that this same longing for closure transcends time. In the first reading Saint Paul continues his farewell address to the elders of Ephesus. He is heading towards an unknown fate and he suspects that he will never see this beloved community again. Paul encourages them and reminds them that they are strong enough to continue on their own. He entrusts them with the message that he came to share with them and then they pray together and cry with one another. As Paul leaves there is no good closure, the people will have to wait for years before they hear news from afar that Saint Paul had been put to death at the hands of the Romans.
In the Gospel Jesus is offering his prayer to the Father that his disciples will be taken care of after his leaving. He knows that they will not be able to understand and will be traumatized by his departure and he offers these words,
“Now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world… But now I am coming to you and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.”
This mysterious phrase perhaps gives us something to hold on to during these difficult times. Yes, we are separated by the deaths of those we love as they are no longer in the world. The pain we feel is made even more difficult by the inability to honor their passing in a good way. But the love we shared with them in this life remains with us. It has no time limit. It will sustain us until we are united again in our eternal home.
There will come a time when we can gather again and celebrate the Mass for all those who have died during these days. We will be able to sing and hug and cry together and we will gather for a big feast in their memory. Until then we are comforted by the knowledge that they are not lost, they are in the hands of God and their love remains in us.