“I look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come” (Nicene Creed)

decorative ImageI can remember reading a survey a few years ago that surprised me a great deal. It was published in the Toronto Star and claimed that more than forty percent of Catholics believed in reincarnation.

This surprised me because Jesus offers us so much more through His life, death and resurrection.

The basic assumption behind reincarnation is that we can come back for a second chance. If we do not get it right the first time, there will be another opportunity to do so on the second, third or fourth attempt.

With Jesus, we do not need a second try. As we hear proclaimed in this Sunday’s second reading from the Letter to John: “He is expiation for our sins, and not our sins only but for those of the whole world.” Jesus has come into the world to save all people. By His life, death and resurrection, He has won eternal life for all of us. Jesus has taken our sins upon Himself and destroyed death so that we might have eternal life. The central belief of the Christian faith is that God became a human being to save us from death and give us eternal life. Because of Christ’s victory, we do not need to come back and try again until we get it right. Through His blood, our sins are forgiven and we are offered eternal life. We profess this aspect of our faith every time that we profess our faith when we say in the Nicene creed: “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”

That the resurrection of the body is an essential aspect of our faith is something that we see Jesus Himself attempting to communicate to His disciples very intentionally in the days following His death. In all of the resurrection appearances, Jesus goes to great lengths to prove that He is not simply a ghost, but that He has truly risen in His body. We see this in this Sunday’s Gospel reading from the Gospel of Luke as He states to His disciples: “Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.” Another aspect of Christ’s resurrection appearances is that He is always asking His disciples for something to eat. As He asks the disciples in this Sunday’s Gospel: “Have you anything here to eat?” To which we are told: “They gave Him a piece of baked fish, he took it and ate it in front of them.” This seemingly irrelevant fact about Jesus eating some fish is intended to communicate the very significant reality that He truly has risen and has a body; as a ghost could not eat and consume a piece of solid food.

For many in the early Church, the change that was brought about in these early disciples as a result of seeing the risen Christ was the greatest proof of the resurrection. The fact that the disciples themselves were willing to die to witness to their confidence in the resurrection was seen as the greatest proof that they had indeed seen the risen Lord. The followers of Jesus, who had originally fled for fear of death, discovered a peace and freedom that made them willing to die to witness to His resurrection. Whereas they once fled for fear they too would be put to death; after His resurrection, they understood that death had no power over them and that Christ would raise them up to eternal life.

Easter is the celebration of our faith that Christ has destroyed death and that because of His victory we too shall share in His resurrection. We remind ourselves of this at Easter by renewing our baptismal promises. This is also why adults who are baptized are baptized at Easter. It is the time that best communicates the promises of eternal life that are made ours through Baptism. Another powerful celebration, that reminds us as members of the Christian community of the promise of eternal life that Christ has shared with us through His life, death and resurrection, is the Christian Funeral Mass. The Christian Funeral Mass is like an Easter Mass for the individual in which we re-enact her/his baptismal celebration in order to remind ourselves of the promise of eternal life that Christ made to her/him on the day of Baptism.

When we celebrate a Funeral Mass for one of the members of our community, we bring her/his body back to the church where they had worshipped on earth. With the body present in the Church on earth for the last time, we commend our deceased brother or sister to the mercy of God and ask that she/he be received into the Church in Heaven. As their loved ones brought the individual to the Church on the day of Baptism, so they bring the person to the Church on the day of the Funeral Mass. As on the day of Baptism, they are received at the doors of the Church. The celebration begins by receiving the body of the deceased person and sprinkling the casket with holy water. This is done, not for any magical reasons, but to remind us of Baptism. Just as we become members of the Church on earth through Baptism, we pray that our loved one will become a member of the Church in Heaven through this same sacrament. Once the casket has been sprinkled with holy water, a white pall is placed on the casket. This represents the baptismal gown that was worn on the day of Baptism. We pray that our loved one will be welcomed into Heaven as a result of the Baptism that she/he received. The pall represents that hope and that we are all equal in God’s eyes.

When the body of our loved is brought forward, it is placed in the same spot that she/he stood when receiving the Eucharist in the parish church. This is done as we say good bye to our loved for the last time in the church on earth and entrust her/his soul to the mercy of God. We pray during Mass that our loved one will be admitted to the Church in Heaven as we celebrate Mass for the last time with her/him present in the Church on earth. Just as they are placed before the altar in the Church on earth, we pray that through God’s mercy our loved ones will be brought to the eternal altar in Heaven to share in the heavenly banquet. A fact that is often overlooked is that we pray for our deceased loved ones at every Mass; not just at the Funeral Mass. In each Eucharistic prayer, we pray not only for the saints but also for all those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith. At this point, we can always pray for the repose of the souls of our loved ones. At a Funeral Mass, there is the possibility of including the name of the deceased person in the Eucharistic Prayer as a reminder that we pray that through God’s mercy our loved one is admitted to the Church in Heaven and is alive and well with God.

At the end of Mass, the Funeral concludes with the Rites of Commendation and Farwell. In these rites, we say good bye to the individual for the last time in the Church on earth and remind ourselves that we shall see her/him again in Heaven. We thank God for the gift that this person was to those who knew and loved her/him. These rites include an incensing of the body as a sign of respect for what had been a Temple of the Holy Spirit and as a sign that this body will be raised up on the last day. The casket may also be sprinkled at this time with holy water as another reminder of Baptism and the resurrection that we are called to share in as a result of this saving sacrament.

During the pandemic, one of the most difficult things for some families has been the inability to gather for a proper Funeral Mass on the occasion of the death of a loved one. For this reason, it is important to state that the important thing is the celebration of Mass for the individual who has died. The rites of the Funeral Mass are intended not for the deceased, but for the family and loved ones. These rites remind the family and loved ones of their faith and that the deceased individual is alive and well with the Lord. Often, in the face of death, we ourselves can be like the original disciples, challenged to really believe that the Good News of the resurrection is true for our loved ones. The Funeral Rites remind us of our faith in the resurrection and that these promises are true for our loved ones. When these cannot be celebrated, as has sometimes been the case during this pandemic, the Mass can be celebrated without these rites for the repose of the individual’s eternal soul. The Funeral Rites themselves are intended to help the living be assured that their departed loved ones are alive and well with the Lord who has redeemed them.

We profess in our creed that we believe in the resurrection from the dead. Despite the fact that this is an essential part of our faith, it is something that at times we can find difficult to believe when we face death in our own lives. In these days of the Easter season, let us hear these stories of Christ’s bodily resurrection and know that Jesus goes to such an extent to prove that He has risen in His body so that we might know that He also wishes to raise us up in our bodies on the day of the resurrection. As Jesus appears to His disciples, He does so that they might know the peace that comes from His resurrection. May these days of the Easter season also restore us in our hope in the power of His resurrection to destroy death and bring all of us true peace in the knowledge that we shall not die and shall see our deceased loved ones again in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Christ is truly risen and so shall we!

Happy Easter!

Fr. Michael McGourty,
Pastor, St. Peter’s Church—Toronto, Ontario

This reflection based on the readings for the Third Sunday of Easter—Year B: Acts 3: 13-15, 17-19; Psalm 4; 1 John 2: 1-5a; and Luke 24: 35-48.