The Homilist Cannot Ignore Culture and Tradition
When serving a large Italian family: four generations, 8 children, 17 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren, and a chapel filled to overflowing, we become acutely aware that something really big is afoot, and it’s called tradition.
The matriarch is dead and she leaves a legacy of three generations after her, and stories to fill a lifetime. You quickly realize how important a family’s traditions and culture are when you listen to the expressions used in the course of the initial interview, when you find you are not just chatting with a single go-to person for arrangements but the conversation is on speaker phone and seven or eight persons are chiming in with stories, remarks, and “Do you remember when’s.”
This homily also illustrates how you can weave the information bits obtained in the course of the initial interview into the homily to make it more intimate, more personal, and by doing so pull the mourners into the action of the homily. As a whole, then, the homily will be successful in bringing life, memories and Holy Scripture into a unique message of healing.
Enter coïncidence and strong bonds of trust and confidence are formed. Add a beautiful poem, Italian culture, and the homily quickly takes shape.
∗ November 23, 1933 – † December 22, 2015
“Looking Beyond Earth’s Shadows”
One of the first things I learn about a “case” before it becomes a “person” is the name. So, initially, I have to work only with a name. I’m sometimes fortunate, when that name generates thoughts, and I immediately reflect on the name.
Annabella Ciccarelli. Now that’s a name with a very long history stretching back to ancient Rome. It’s recorded in a wide variety of spellings include Ciccolo, Cicconi, Ciccerale, Ciccarelli and Ciccarello. Ciccarelli is Italian: it’s a patronymic, an Italian surname of Roman-Latin origins. It comes from the personal name “Franciscus” or Francesco, the diminutive form of which is Cicco or Cecco. The popularity of “Francesco” it is said, was due in large measure to the fame of St. Francis of Assisi (1187 – 1226). It’s not surprising that it became a personal name back in the 5th century.
Annabelle comes from the Latin name, Amabella means beautiful, loving, lovable, graceful.
And so all of this brought my focus to Italy, Umbria, St Francis of Assisi, sunshine, hospitality, laughter, generosity, cheerfulness. Sunflowers. In Umbria there are fields and fields of sunflowers. Who could that possibly remind you of? A handful of connections but only that; I couldn’t have known how they all fit together, until I spoke to Pam and Mary Ellen.
I had never seen the memorial card they chose for Anna; all I knew was that the poem was “Safely Home,” a lovely poem–prayer full of theology, but it didn’t have much to do with sunflowers at all. But the image the girls had chosen for the card was sunflowers, and the theme I had chosen for today’s service was, Guess what? Sunflowers! Uncanny! Something awesome was at work here.
Sunflowers symbolize adoration, loyalty and longevity. Much of the meaning of sunflowers stems from its namesake, the sun itself. These flowers are unique in that they have attributes which mirror the sun’s warmth and light. Sunflowers are a symbol of powerful optimism and cheerful expectancy. Sunflowers are symbolic of adoration. And did you know that sunflowers actually turn their heads to follow the sun? That is the origin of their common name in Italian, Girasole, turn to the sun. Sunflowers belong to the genus Helianthus, a reference to Helios, the sun god, also a reference to Jesus Christ, Light of the World (Jn 8:12, Mt 5:14).
Sunflowers are known for being “happy” flowers, making them the perfect gift to bring joy to someone’s day. Now who comes to mind with all this?
But even before all of this, I had turned my attention to the poem, Safely Home, and was amazed at the theology contained in those few lines. There I read about “home in heaven” and I recalled St Paul and our Gospel today. “Brightness”, “illumination,” “everlasting light,” “looking beyond the shadows.” All images of light that call to mind that Christ is the light of the world. The poem talks of “joy and beauty,” that “pain and grief is over,” “trust in the Father’s will,” a gentle “call home,” “rapture of meeting” or reunion, a “joy to see you come” home. “Peace,” “calm,” “joy and beauty.” After reading that poem, I mused with skipping the homily and reading the poem instead! This it’s not just a poem, it’s a prayer, a sermon full of Gospel.
Does all of this sound familiar to you? Was Annabelle a sunflower in a former life? Look at the picture on the program / up front here; Annabelle is gazing upwards, skywards, towards the light, just as a sunflower would do, and she has such a genuine smile. Yeah! You’re probably thinking this guy’s on wacky–weed or has OD’ed on his incense. Maybe, but you can’t deny the imagery, the associations, can you?
If I were talking to Annabelle right now, I’d say to her: You are cheerful and friendly, but have an emotional side, too. You like to have several lines of effort going at once, sort of like crocheting. You are a good talker and promoter and seldom worry needlessly over anything, there’s always a good joke to retell. At times, you can be impatient, and impulsive, especially in a Yahtzee game. But you have the ability to bring an idea to completion. You can express yourself joyously and constructively. You might be psychic, but not know it. You are intuitive and might be interested in the arts, drama or science. Well, if gadgets qualify as science, Anna would be Nobel prize material, even if the bread machine never saw any bread.
Anna, you are creative and outgoing, you are always looking for an opportunity to show your abilities, especially before audience. You’d have an Oscar in shock and awe, but you loved honest, good fun with people. You are very flexible and like to feel appreciated. You are looking for chances to mix with others socially and to communicate your ideas. You like to talk and can easily relate to different cultures and concepts, but jokes are the best, especially shocking jokes. You could keep everyone on their toes and in good humor, even the nurses. The biggest challenge for you is uncertainty. I can see where you’d easily get bored; but you loved your job and you stuck with it. Your high creative force can lead you to crocheting, collecting dolls, or Yahtzee. If you understand your goals, if you can make major decisions in life and follow them, directly and straight up without worry and uncertainty, you are able to achieve great heights. And so you did, Anna, by raising eight beautiful, loving children almost single – handedly.
Our readings today as well as our music repeat those themes. Each of you should have a prayer card with Safely Home. When you get home you can download “All I ask from you,” a number from Phantom of the Opera, a love story, and make your comparisons. They all tell of light, joy, love, homecoming, an end to tears and suffering, “looking beyond earth’s shadows” and experiencing light and brightness.
They all inspire a sense of hope in us. St John’s Gospel starts out with “do not let your hearts be troubled.” Home Safely tells us “You must not grieve so sorely…look beyond the shadows…trust our Father’s will.” Our Gospel tells us that Christ has gone before us to prepare a place for us and that He will return to take us home. Safely home promises that when our “work is all completed, He will gently call you home.” Later today we’ll hear the familiar Psalm 23, The Lord is my shepherd, which echoes lines from Safely Home: “I so calmly trod the valley of the shade…but Jesus’ love illumined every dark and fearful glade.”
Our first reading from Isaiah tells us of the good things to expect, similar to Ps 23, which sings that our cup runneth over and that a banquet is prepared for us. Similar to St John in Revelations we are told that “God will wipe away all tears.” Our readings today tell us that we will have peace, joy, and that God will save us if we trust in Him, if we look to Him. Psalm 25 sings that we lift up our souls to the God we trust. We ask Him to “guide us by His fidelity,” and to “teach us His ways.” We ask him to have “compassion and mercy,” to forget the “sins of our youth.”
Why? Because as St Paul teaches in our third reading, we are “led by the Spirit of God”, we are “children of God,” and therefore God’s heirs. We call out to Him, “Abba, Father!” St Paul also teaches that the sufferings of this world are nothing compared to the glory that awaits us, that all of creation is groaning as if in labor, waiting to return to God. After all it’s that going home that is the ultimate goal.
St Paul asks us “Who hopes for something he can already see?” If you know what’s in the gift box under the tree, do you continue hoping for it? No, of course not! It’s there, yours within reach. He goes on to say that if we hope for something we don’t see, we wait patiently. What else is there to do? We hope that our lover, Christ, as we hear in “All I Ask From You,” is there for us, and that’s all we ask from Him or from each other. We hope that we will be resurrected in glory to see with the eyes of the Spirit our loved one again. We hope that in the end we are faithful and trust in God so that we can enjoy the place He has prepared for us.
We just celebrated the Feast of the Incarnation a.k.a. Christmas day yesterday. That was the culmination of the 4 weeks of advent, a period of preparation and expectation. Interestingly, this past Sunday was the fourth Sunday in Advent, the Sunday where we read the Gospel according to Matthew that drives us all nutz recounting who begat whom in three volleys of 14 generations. That may have been immensely important to first century Jews but makes us 21st Century Christians crazy. What’s the sense? you have to ask.
Well, the sense is the importance of genealogy, of your roots. Look around you here today: Here in this chapel you have four, count them FOUR generations! Annabelle, aunt Sandy and aunt Millie are No. 1. Mary – Ellen, John, Florence, Pamela, Dominick, Carmen, Patti are No. 2, the 17 grandchildren are No. 3, and the 18 great – grandchildren are No 4. Now how often can you get 4 generations in one room at the same time, I ask you? That’s the importance of knowing where you came from because it gives your life meaning; it gives you something important to share. It makes you feel valuable. You have a shared personal history just as you have a common spiritual history; you are all interconnected like a field of sunflowers.
And so we make full circle back to the Sunflower following the sun; a suitable image of us in our spiritual journeys following the light, the light of previous generations, the love, the connection, the promises, all of this just a sampling in human terms of the great and glorious things that await us if we trust in God. We read our Holy Scriptures and we remember. We look at each other, 4 generations alive and well, and you read your family’s story in your faces. You look at each other and see the face of God. On the one hand the story of the family of all creation, on the other hand the story of a little model of creation, the family. How awesome if you take the time to ponder it all.
How appropriate at this time of year, when our thoughts — one would hope — are first on giving thanks for the many gifts we have received, and then we focus on the Feast of the Incarnation, Natale, the birth of a divine savior, a messiah, an ancient promise kept, and so we give thanks. We look forward now to a New Year 2016, and we look forward with a certain anxiety, a certain anticipation — all change is accompanied by anxiety and anticipation — but most of all we look to the future with hope. Just as the lovely sunflower keeps adoringly, hopefully following the sun, so too, should we, in hope, keep our eye on our source of light, our Lord, and in that light live in hope of our own future of glory, as we now remember Annabelle, who has gone before us.
To read or download a pdf of this homily please click Homily_Annabelle T. Ciccarelli_final.