At 62, I know the creakiness of my body. My knees ache. My back tightens up. Still, I’m in pretty good health.
But my baby brother John, who is 57, had a heart attack recently. Dave, a guy with whom I play basketball twice a week, suddenly learned he had leukemia. And an elderly friend, Marty, died.
So saying that final good-bye has been on my mind. And, when I attended Marty’s well-planned requiem mass at our parish church, I got to wondering what sort of funeral I’d like to have.
Later, at home, I sat down and typed up a draft of my own service. Although it may sound ghoulish, it was an interesting exercise. More than an exercise, it was something of a self-examination. Well, what is important to me? How would I like my life summed up?
I used the mass booklet from Marty’s service as an outline, and quickly realized that I’m not all that interested in the music that’s part of my funeral.
Sure, I’d like Pachelbel’s Canon in D and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue to be played at some point. (Both are from the service Cathy and I put together for our wedding back in 1982.) However, no hymns or songs leaped to mind as something I felt needed to be included.
Not like the readings.
A great epic poem of faith
I discovered I had very particular ideas about what should be read when and where in the liturgy.
Like the first reading — Genesis 1:1 – 2:2.
In the beginning,
when God created the heavens and the earth,
the earth was a formless wasteland,
and darkness covered the abyss,
while a mighty wind swept over the waters…
It’s a longish reading, covering the seven days of creation, about 750 words. And it looks even longer with the sentences broken up into lines as in a poem. Which, of course, is what those opening verses of the bible are — a great epic poem of religious faith and vision.
This poem is the first in a series of vibrant, rock-center readings that make up the Liturgy of the Word in the Easter Vigil ceremony each year.
For about a decade, our friend Jan and I read this poem in the darkened, hushed church. She would read the verses for one day of creation, and I would read those for the next. The female voice alternating with the male voice was pleasing and prayerful, a bit like Gregorian chant.
The only time we broke this pattern was in the middle of the sixth day section when the two of us would join together to read the lines:
God created man in his image;
in the image of God, he created him;
male and female, he created them.
I found great enjoyment and fulfillment in reading those poetic, spiritual lines. Nonetheless, after so many years, it seemed right this year to step aside and let someone else take a crack at it.
Jan’s son Joe and our daughter Sarah stepped in. And they did a bang-up job.
So, at my funeral service, the six days of creation from Genesis will recall my time in the pulpit with Jan proclaiming the story.
Of course, the birth of the universe is also a reminder of the birth that each of us has. Just as the universe is its own miracle — ask a scientist to explain what there was before the Big Bang — so, too, is the life of me and you and everyone else.
An intense distillation of belief
I hearkened back to my time in the seminary to come up with a responsorial reading. As a teen and young man, I studied for the priesthood for nine years before deciding, four years short of ordination, that, really, I wanted to get married.
At one stage, we read portions of the Daily Office together on a regular basis, and a key feature of those services was Mary’s hymn of praise to God in Luke 1: 46-55, the Magnificat:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my savior…
For me, those two opening lines are an intense distillation of faith. The bulk of the prayer has to do with how God is mighty and has scattered the proud in their conceit, and has always been of less interest to me.
I love the word “magnify” here. It’s not a word we use in our normal conversation about belief. It’s like “praise” and “exalt” and “glorify” but more evocative. Mary lays it all on the line. At this moment of Annunciation, as she experiences an avalanche of powerful emotions, Mary’s focus is on God.
From my childhood, her words of faith have resonated very deeply in me.
God’s connection with us
Other words that have resonated very deeply with me are those of a single sentence of Paul, included in his letter to the Romans, chapter 8, verses 38-39.
These are words that Cathy and I used for the second reading at our wedding, and that I’d like used as the second reading at my funeral service:
For I am certain of this: neither death nor life, no angel, no prince, nothing that exists, nothing still to come, not any power or height or depth, nor any created thing can come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus Our Lord.
I’m a sucker for the poetry of this sentence and its simplicity. Like the Magnificat, this gets down to the quintessence of belief. Mary praises God. Paul rejoices in God’s openness, God’s availability, God’s connection with each one of us.
By this point in my little exercise, I had the first and second readings as well as the responsorial. What did I want for the gospel?
I looked at this reading and that one and then another one, all the time knowing that there was no way I could choose a section of John’s gospel that had spoken to me in a profound way from the time I was a pre-teen altar boy.
It was too dark. It was too much of a footnote. It was — well, finally, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to take a look at John 19: 31-41.
The scene is Calvary. Jesus has just died. John writes:
It was Preparation Day, and to prevent the bodies remaining on the cross during the Sabbath — since the Sabbath was a day of special solemnity — the Jewish leaders asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken away.
Consequently the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with him and then of the other.
When they came to Jesus, they found he was already dead, and so instead of breaking his legs, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a lance, and immediately there came out blood and water. This is the evidence of one who saw it — trustworthy evidence, and he knows he speaks the truth — and he gives it so that you may believe as well.
Because all this happened to fulfill the words of scripture: “Not one bone of his will be broken.” And, again, in another place, scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.”
I looked at those verses and realized that, because they have been so meaningful to me, I had to include them in my requiem, even if they seemed maybe a little odd.
Someone else’s schedule
My mother always liked the story of the two thieves because one was good and one was bad. I always liked it because the two thieves got a raw deal and they died together.
The legs of the thieves were ordered broken so they would die quicker. Their deaths were ordered speeded up to meet someone else’s schedule. Because it was more convenient.
That has always galled me.
Jesus is already dead. Now, the two thieves die. Unable any longer to support their upper bodies, they sink down and suffocate themselves. It doesn’t take long.
For me, it was one of those reminders that life isn’t fair. And a reminder that we all have to die. We share this in common.
Just as the thieves did. I like to think that, when the soldiers came to break their legs, one turned to the other — it doesn’t matter who, it doesn’t matter good or bad — and their eyes met. And somehow there was a communion. Somehow each expressed to the other compassion and kindness and support.
And somehow they did not go to their deaths alone.
Faith in Mary’s hymn is magnifying God. Faith in Paul’s sentence is recognizing the connection of God to each of us.
Faith in my reading of these verses from John — in this gospel for my funeral service — is the communion that each of us has or, at least, can have with each other.
That’s what I hope. That’s what I believe.
Patrick T. Reardon
published February, 2012 in Reality Magazine (Ireland)