Although, as homilists, we are admonished to make the Pascal mystery the focus of the homily. While that’s a good general hermaneutic for the Sunday homily, bridging the Liturgy of the Word with the Liturgy of the Eucharist, my bereavement ministry is more pastoral, more therapeutic than theologically ecclesial. During the funeral or memorial liturgy —Yes! It’s a liturgy, a work of the people. — we are called, in the midst of grief, despair, confusion, depression, and myriad strong emotions, to find meaning, to inaugurate healing, and to engage transformation. And we do it by participation; the officiant officiates but the assembly participates not only by being passively engaged in the ritual actions and words, but by their personal, active participation.
In the Guest of Honor homily, I was called to honor the memory of the deceased, while acknowledging his somewhat humanly free-spirit character. I am using the words “free spirit” here as perhaps the Greek word for frailty or eccentricity, ἁμαρτάνειν hamartánein, which means to “miss the mark.” That’s something we all manage to do at some point of or throughout our earthly pilgrimage, so it’s no big news that our dead loved one managed to be human at least in that respect but it’s not very wise to dwell on his or her shortcomings at his or her funeral liturgy. Nevertheless, a careful selection of readings will help to drive the point home, even if it has to be done subliminally, by presenting a familiar story with a different twist.
The theological concept of conversion or metanoia (μετάνοια, a change of mind) is important as the resolution of the paradoxes of the life lived; in this instance, metanoia is more of a spiritual transformation or a conversion, both of the deceased and of the survivors.
It’s refreshing to reframe the bereavement situation as one of initially missing the mark, but then a metanoia, renewal, newness, the quenching of a protracted thirst, a homecoming, a nonjudgmental embrace. Reinterpreting the Lucan parable of the Prodigal Son and revisiting the familiar parable as the Homecoming Parable, I attempted to frame the deceased’s life and death in a positive light, and not necessarily in the usual cookie-cutter dirge of platonisms, incomprehensible palaver or theological meanderings.
I hope you find the result persuasive. I welcome your comments and critiques.
The Guest of Honor
Isaiah 25:6a, 7 – 9; Psalm 42; Revelation 21:1 – 8; Luke 15:11 – 32
Some time ago, while on retreat, I was discussing death and dying with a brother monk and what it means to someone who has devoted his life to work and prayer. He explained it like this: “Say you have a beloved friend with whom you have lost contact over the years but you think about him often, with love and nostalgia. Then, one day, quite unexpectedly, you receive an invitation to a special party in your honor given by that friend, a sort of reunion. How would you feel? Probably elated and so excited you could forget to breath. What joy! And so it’s the day of the reunion and you arrive at the resort, your friend is there—hasn’t changed a bit since you last saw him—and what a reunion! What a celebration! One hell of a party! Well, that’s what I think happens when our work is done here, and we return home to God who welcomes us with a big hug and big celebration!”
That’s a really nice way to think about death and the loss of a precious loved one. He’s really not lost but he’s been found by an old friend, and they’re partying.
This theme occurs again and again in the Old and the New Testament, the theme of the wanderer and the homecoming, and the promise of a rich banquet waiting for us when death is destroyed. There’s the promise of no more tears and suffering.
The prophet Isaiah preached that message many, many years ago, when he delivered the Lord’s message that there’s a huge party in store for those who love their God; there’ll be good food and plenty of wine. No more death and no more tears and no more suffering.
In a beautiful image, our Psalm today describes us like a deer thirsting for streams of life–giving water; it’s a way of describing our souls and their yearning for unity with God. The Psalmist sings that his — or her — soul “thirsts for God, the living God.” The Psalmist sings that when he crosses the threshold to the other side, to the abode of God, there will be loud cries of thanksgiving and festival. That’s what my old monk friend was describing for me: it’s the joyful reunion when old friends get together after a long separation. Like the Psalmist, they recall the old times and they pour out their hearts.
Revelation teaches us that all will be made new and the holy city Jerusalem will appear decked out like a new bride. In the new order, the Kingdom of God, God will dwell with us, there will be no more tears, no more death or mourning, no more pain. Everything will be made new. We will be made new.
Deep inside, we are all spiritual beings, pure spirit, soul, eternal. God created and put u on this earth so that someone would share and enjoy creation with Him—I guess He needed playmates. But the soul, the eternal divine part of us, is constantly yearning, thirsting to return to be one with God. It’s painful to be separated but we all know deep down inside that what we really want is to return to our eternal home.
There’s beautiful Celtic story about a man who has died and his soul steps out of his body to go home. But at the door of the house, the soul turns around and gazes upon the man’s lifeless body, and the soul is pained with both sorrow and gratitude. The soul turns around, moves close to the man’s body, bends down and kisses him saying, “Thank you for sheltering me and protecting me. I am truly grateful to you but now I must return.” Like the grateful, loving soul, we too, should be grateful to our loved one here, Ronnie, for sheltering, protecting, providing for, teaching, and loving you. Like the soul, we should approach Ronnie saying we are grateful to you, but now you have to return. It sure hurts but it’s meant to be that way.
And you know, I have to confess that I chose an unusual Gospel today from Luke. It’s unusual because it’s a Gospel that we don’t read at occasions such as this one. I really don’t understand Why not? except that the story has been repeated forever in a sort of really negative way, when in fact it is really a very comforting story, it’s our story, the story of humankind.
I call it the Parable of the Homecoming, you probably recognized it as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the story of a rotten spoiled kid who squanders his inheritance and then wants to come home. Some of us would say his father must be nutz for taking him in and even worse, throwing a party for him. Most of us would side with the brother who just can’t understand why the brat of the family is being treated like a prince when he, the older brother, stuck it out at home and worked his fingers to the bone like a good son would. Sure, there’s a valuable morality tale here and can be correctly viewed either as pretty unfair or as a parable of love and reconciliation. I have no real problem with that, but I do see it differently.
I actually divide the parable up into about four parts: the first part is the reality-life part, we receive gifts use them up, and then hard times hit. We have to bite the bullet and eat crow.
The second part is the regret part where we engage in what I call “magical thinking”; it’s when we say “what if,” “if only,” “shoulda, coulda, woulda” but it’s too late to change what’s happened. Time to admit we missed the mark and we have to go back to square one. The only question is How? How to grow from the experience? Happens a lot in life, doesn’t it?
The third part is the reconciliation part, where the father catches sight of the son returning and prepares a feast to welcome him home because “this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.” Only a loving dad or mom could think that way, and most of us here know that from personal experience, don’t we?
The fourth part is ego or false–self part, where the older brother does what any one of us would do: He sulks. He asks if his father has lost his mind? Here he’s celebrating the return of a disappointment, a failure. But the father responds with the words, “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours.” What he’s saying is, “What are you complaining about? You have it all. Wake up and stop looking at everyone else!” In other words, be grateful, not envious, you have enough, you can share a little. Pull the stick out and join the party, dude!
The parable does what a parable is supposed to do: it shakes things up; it messes with our heads; it turns our expectations, our safe normal on its head; if we’re lucky, it gets us to think on a different level.
While here on earth we have our heavenly father’s inheritance at our disposal; we tend to squander it, just like the younger son did, or we make bad choices and suffer for them. We recognize that we’ve made some mistakes and we repent, we make a turnaround, and strive to get back on course, on the path home again. We turn around and head home back to where we should have been in the first place, in union with God, God sees us approaching, opens his arms, welcomes us, no questions asked, and has a feast prepared for us.
The rest of us, like the older brother, stand by and watch, knowing what’s happening and ask “Why him?” I’ve been good and yet I’m still here, laboring, suffering, hurting. Why am I not the guest of honor? Why’d he leave me behind? Well, the older brother is called to a new way of thinking, just as we are here today.
The father’s answer is reassuring and a promise: “You are here with me always, everything I have is yours.”
How can, could we have lost sight of that? Well we have to change the way we receive those words and how we think about them. It’s a spiritual lesson, it’s what the false self is constantly doing: it’s constantly comparing, like the older brother, and asking why don’t I have what he’s getting; he was a lousy son and I was a good son. What the fudge? But the father’s response is a wake up call. It’s an in your face reminder of what you’ve forgotten, missed right under your nose: You are with me here always, everything I have is yours, including the learning experience. Yes the older brother has to learn qualitatively what the younger brother has already learned.
It’s that nasty question we always ask, Why? It’s what I would call the control question. It’s the “I–really-need to have some answers” question. We’re so arrogant that we actually think we could understand God’s ways! Why? not the question we should be asking. And the older brother is asking that very question. But God doesn’t have to explain things to us. We should be asking How? How do I find meaning in this situation? How do I grow from this? How has this changed me, transformed me in terms of how I live my life from this point on? You see, as the father seems to point out in the parable, you may be for God, you may be against God, but you’re never without God.
Ronnie was with us, lived among us, was of us but was not ours to keep. Like all of creation, God put Ronnie among us to reveal to us something about God. That’s why God created the cosmos, so that his creatures could know him, so that he could reveal a bit of Himself to his creatures through his creatures. God created humankind, though, a bit higher-maintenance than the rest of creation and a little less than the angels, but nevertheless He put his Holy Spirit in us when he breathed life into the original man of clay. When he did that he gave us the power to make choices, something the angels didn’t have, and when we decided to use that power of choice to go against God, he sent us out to make our own choices, but remained always ready to welcome us back once we’ve made our experiences. Moreover, there’s always that little spark of God in each of us that is always straining to be reunited with God, its very source. Well, that’s the myth of Adam and Eve but it explains a lot of what goes on while God’s spirit, our soul, is occupying these fragile bodies. But there’s always something deep down inside of every human being that’s uncomfortable here, something that’s always stirring —I’m sure many of you have felt it—, something that almost feels like it wants to get out of this mortal frame. That’s the soul, the stuff of the divine, who like the thirsty deer, thirsts to return to God. It’s the soul wanting to reclaim its, our inheritance. The soul wants to shine and like a shiny mirror reflect itself as the image of God but, in human form, the mirror is dull, dusty, and as old Isaiah teaches, there’s a veil over it; to truly reflect the divine image the soul must be free of the bonds of this life, this body cannot enter the realm of the pure spirits, the realm of the angels and of God, we have to shed this tired old dwelling and move on when our journey is done.
If you listen and look carefully, you’ll find that you don’t have to consult the Bible to read that. You can find it in as unlikely a place as rock music, and in a moment, we’ll hear a song by the rock group, Chicago, it’s a very special song for Nancy and Ronnie, it’s called “You’re the Inspiration.” Normally, I would not have a secular song in the middle of a liturgical service but this one is different, and I’d like you to listen carefully to the words. Yes, it’s a song of two lovers, it’s a love song, but it could almost be the soul singing to God or vice versa. It’s chock full of deep theology of a love relationship. That’s why I put it in the service right after this homily. Indeed, that rock song describes in modern language what we’ve been discussing: our love was meant to be, it lasts forever; I want you here with me; you’re always on my mind, in my heart, in my soul. I was dead but now I’m alive; once lost but now found.
Following that musical meditation, Roy Bordeau will lead us in the Litany of Thanksgiving and Remembrance, and we’ll reflect on our gratitude for Ronnie, we’ll give thanks for what he shared with us, and we’ll remember some of the wonderful things about him that enriched and will continue to enrich our lives. His kindness, his simplicity, his generosity, his cheerfulness in suffering all provide us with enduring meaning. Everything of value that Ronnie had to truly give is ours now; we should be good stewards and use his legacy wisely. In Ronnie, and looking around this room today, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we would know that the Father is here with us always.
Our Christian faith compels us to believe what the Father says about his younger son to his older son: This son of mine was dead in the world, and has come to eternal life again; he was lost to me, but now has been found” The celebration has begun.
Peace be to you!
To read or download a pdf of this homily please click Homily for Ronnie Morris_the Guest of Honor.