My maternal grandparents, Francis and Ruth, passed away in 2001 and 2002, respectively. My grandfather was a firefighter and my grandmother was a nurse in Lowell, Massachusetts. They raised four children in the Highlands of Lowell, and have ten grandchildren. They went to Mass every Sunday and did what they could for us, to show their love in their own ways. When my grandfather died I was at a church-run summer camp and I had been praying at the grave of St. Raphael of Brooklyn, asking that he would help my grandfather in his final days. The next morning I received a phone call that he had died. My grandmother lived for another nine months before she passed away. We got the phone call from my aunt that she wouldn’t be with us much longer. When we got to the house we prayed, and she died not long after.
In this country, and in the Western world in general, we’re scared of death. We don’t want to think about it, and when it happens we don’t want to deal with it. We especially don’t want our children to see it. When someone dies, we have people take them from the hospital where they died, to a place where people are paid to make them look like they’re still alive, and then when we see them at a funeral home we say things like, “don’t they look good!” We then take them to church (maybe) and then to a graveyard and bury them, or, God-forbid, we cremate them. We are disconnected from death. Gone are the days of waking someone in the house. Gone are the days of carrying them to the church. Gone are the days of keeping memorials for them on the 3rd, 7th, and 40th days after their death. We’ve become, ironically, hypersensitive to death in our efforts to push it away from us. With all the self-help books, health fads, and the push towards looking young forever, we’ve forgotten to age gracefully, trusting in God.
Our desire to ignore death leads to a final confrontation when our own mortality stares us in the face, as sickness weakens us, as age bends us down. In death, the mask we’ve worn for so many years is taken from us and we’re shown who we really are; sometimes we no longer recognize ourselves. This is not how it’s supposed to be. Our whole lives lead up to that moment where we will meet Christ face to face. That is where the rubber meets the road. All the prayers we’ve uttered, all of the fasting, all of the almsgiving, the care for the poor, the visiting the sick and imprisoned; everything we have done for God and for Christ prepare us for this moment. A moment where we experience that, through the Resurrection of Christ, death is no longer something that has final mastery over us. The nature of death has changed. Death has become a passage from this life to eternal life in Christ. Yes, our souls are still separated from our bodies, and there is still the pain of losing someone near and dear to us, but that is no longer the end.
In Lent, the Church gives us a time to remember our mortality and to reorient our lives towards God. We’re given yet another opportunity to experience the love of God in his care for us, the strength he gives to us. I think this is partly why my grandparents have been in my thoughts this week. My grandfather always encouraged me in my vocation, he cared so much about us grandkids. My grandmother did too. I remember praying the rosary with my grandfather, and I remember my grandmother saying it every morning. They went through Lent every year, they struggled to reorient their lives to God, they lived their lives. And now both of them have gone to meet Christ face to face, and both, I pray, have entered the Kingdom of Heaven. They want me to prepare, too. Christ has told us, the saints have told us, the Church tells us: repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. There we start, and there we end. And we have all the help of the Church, the saints, and above all our Lord to guide us on the way and give us strength, peace, and comfort in times of distress.
I certainly still miss my grandparents, but now I know that they’re still with me at seminary, here during this third week of Lent. Time and space no longer separate us, they watch over and pray for me still. It’s just that I have yet to get used to not seeing them when I go back to Lowell. Now, though, I can be with them anytime and anywhere, in the community of Christians that transcends the boundaries of this world, in the Body of Christ. It doesn’t stop me missing them, I just need to learn how to recognize that they’re with me in a different way now.
We all have loved ones who’ve “gone before us to their rest.” In one of my favorite prayers it speaks of, “those we love but see no longer,” and it asks God to bring us through our lives and be found worthy to enter the kingdom of heaven to see them again. We pray for them, and they pray for us. They are, for a time, hidden from our sight, but they are not gone forever nor, even, for a little while, not truly. We are with them each time we pray, each time we go to church, each time we receive Communion. We are with them in the Resurrection, and the light of the Resurrection shines even in the darkest places.