In the past few weeks I’ve heard many of you talk about how much you love this service, more than any other service of the year. If you’re like me, you have at least a dozen days in the church calendar that you say are your very favorite. I imagine this particular service is so much loved because of the exceptional beauty of the music and, later, the candle-lit Bolster Garden.
I also think that we love this service because we don’t have any other place in our own calendar to reflect in quite the same way upon death and grief. Most of us inhabit a world dead set upon keeping death at bay and getting through grief as quickly as we can.
But today our readings, our prayers, and the stirring words of Antonio Lotti’s requiem remind us that to be people of faith and followers of Jesus is to understand death differently.
To be a Christian is not to have discovered an antidote to grief. Grief is one of the richest experiences of human emotion, God-given. But the invitation to follow Jesus is an invitation to understand death not as ending but as transformation. And, as St. Paul says, as mystery.
This evening I want to tell a couple of little stories of grief transformed.
The first is about a man named Greg I met in 2004 when I was a new priest. A few months before we met, Greg’s father had died. It was a painless and timely death. They had been very close, and it was a huge loss for Greg. He told me that he and his father had had lunch together every Tuesday for the past 30 years. Wow, I said. What I really wanted to say was How can you stand it?? But instead I asked: How have Tuesdays been for you? Now I take my son to lunch, he answered.
The second story is about my good friend Janet and her family. We’ve known each other for about 25 years, maybe longer. She and her husband share a birthday in early January, not just the same date, but also the same year. Within weeks of turning forty about fifteen years ago, Janet’s mother died and her husband’s father died and, a few days later, his mother. They lost three of the four grandparents of their two very young children. It was a rough welcome to middle age. Not long after that, Janet’s father died.
When Janet and I were out to dinner recently, she said that when she died, her family would have to serve red wine and chocolate on her birthday year after year. I said huh?? She explained to me that in her family, they continue to celebrate the birthdays of each of their parents by cooking that person’s favorite food on the anniversary of his or her birth.
This tradition is similar to what families do who build an altar on Dia de los Muertos: they leave favorite foods for their departed loved ones whom they expect will come to visit on that day. But in Janet’s family tradition, the family members themselves eat the favorite food, and that makes the loved one more present.
Each of these stories is about loss and absence. And each is about tradition, continuity, and presence through the sharing of a holy meal. When we have a sense that the one who is absent is actually present, during a meal, that meal becomes sacramental. Holy food and drink.
When Jesus was about to die and leave his disciples, he suggested they break bread together and share wine together, and that they do so again and again in remembrance of him. And when they did that, he was there with them, even in his absence. And so this evening we pray for all those we love but see no longer and we break bread together, not only in memory of Jesus but also in memory of all those whom we name tonight and all those whose names are written on our hearts. We remember, and we share a holy meal as a way to offer to God all that we miss and all that we long for.
We feast at the bread and wine of this Eucharist anticipating the feast Isaiah proclaimed, the feast of rich food and well-aged wines the feast at which the God we await will wipe away every tear and make all things new. With all those we love, past, present, and always, let us be glad and rejoice.