CathBlog - Christian funerals are God's celebration

Following the debate over new guidelines from the Archdiocese of Melbourne about funeral liturgies, a legitimate question is being asked. That is why we can’t we play the favourite songs of the deceased in the liturgy and remember our loved ones in ways that celebrate their lives. The answer is that of course we can do that.

However, is this a legitimate request to make in a liturgical context? We could ask whether we play football songs at the funeral of a deceased soldier. Do we play them at the remembrance of those who have died in war, or bombings, or other such tragedies? And yet, all of those given a Christian burial are Christ’s people and a great solemnity and dignity applies. Why do we give more solemnity to the public rites of the nation, rather than the public rites of the Church? This has to do with a movement of the sacred from Christianity to the nation; where public rules and rituals are associated with the nation while private wants and tastes apply to everything else, including “religion”.

One could respond by asking why God would mind if these songs are played in His Church and liturgy? On one level, of course, God doesn’t care, and this is exactly the point. For God – and ultimately, for us, too – wealth, power, status, victories, football clubs, pop songs, and so many other things, ultimately don’t matter. These things don’t last because they do not constitute our real identity in loving union with God (and others).

“In his riches, man lacks wisdom” (Ps 49:13). In fact, so many of the little things in life prevent us from realising our true identity in God’s love. Like all Catholic liturgy, the funeral liturgy is a reminder of our real identity in Christ, who (through His Church) enables us to realise identity and union with God. The liturgy is Christ’s action, not our action, that brings us into God’s love. This is the profound and challenging perspective of the Christian tradition: that God acts for us through Christ to bring us into His life. This perspective has contrasted to the cultural and religious traditions of the world, which have privileged our human action – whether in paying sacrificial homage to the gods or in the secular individualism that needs to celebrate one’s individual identity.

This controversy can be helping by asking who and what is the funeral liturgy for. Is it for us? For the deceased? The celebration of the lives of the deceased doesn’t really matter for the deceased – they are beyond it. For the deceased, what matters is their continued life in God; and this is what has always mattered, and what really matters for all of us. The funeral liturgy reminds us of this: Christ is acting in the liturgy, with His Church, to commend the spirit of the deceased to His Father - to our real and full life with God. While we like to think our life is “what I make it”, what the Christian tradition tells us is that our life is not just about “me” but about my life with God and others through the one who really loves us, Christ.

The funeral liturgy enables our transition into our real identity: into our union with God’s love. God’s love, of course, takes up our whole identity – all our little and big passions, relationships and actions – by enabling us to realise our true identity in love, beyond the little and big things that keep us from it. Who among can say that we were fully loving and perfect people while we lived? It is God’s infinite love that fulfils our yearnings and completes our “personalities”, not us; and that ultimately commends or enables our life with God. Further, who among can say that we ever fully knew someone – all their thoughts, words, deeds and sins? Christ commends us to the Father with all our virtues and vices – for he knows them all. We can, of course, remember the person’s life – this is important to do and it is part of mourning; but the funeral liturgy is the time for Christ to act for us to liberate us from trying to make ourselves and allow God to make us, finally, even in death!

The playing of football songs and other types of presentations in the funeral liturgy are a sign of us trying to make ourselves and satisfy those of us who are left. It forgets our eternal destiny in God. Celebrating the person’s life at the funeral forgets that it is not our job to celebrate this life, but God’s. When God brings us to our true, loving self, it will be celebration forever! Thus, these kinds of “secular” celebrations are in some sense premature. Knowing the eternal promise of God, we wait in hope for the real celebration with God, which begins in this life and is completed by God eternally.

Like the Church, I am deeply moved by the loss of life and the mourning process. We have all experienced mourning and know its pain. Yet, the notion that celebrating the deceased’s life now is the answer does not serve us ultimately and can even prevent our full mourning. A Christian funeral is about facing up to death with faith and honesty: acknowledging our personal sense of loss as loss begins to be opened up by hope through Christ’s rising from the dead, giving us a glimpse of a destiny we cannot possibly comprehend, especially not as long as we remain locked in our sense of loss or celebration. In the Christian liturgy, we are called to remember who the deceased was and is – the whole person – through Christ, which enables us to joyously and prayerfully remember that his/her ultimate destiny (and our own) is in God. With this eternal perspective revealed in God’s own action for us, we catch sight of our true selves and our destiny in the inexhaustible and infinite love of God.  

Joel HodgeJoel Hodge lectures in theology at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne..



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