3rd Sunday of Easter, Year 2005
Readings: Acts 2:14, 22-33; 1 Peter 1:17-21; Luke 24:13-35.
Faith and Hope in the Face of Death
This has been an extraordinary week for us as Catholics. The death and funeral of the Pope brought millions to Rome, including numerous presidents, prime ministers, kings and queens. The media coverage of the Pope’s funeral, and of the great achievements of his life, suggested that CNN had adopted a new programming philosophy: all pope, all the time. More people were part of the funeral—in person and by TV—than any other funeral in history. And, after a pause while the cardinals go into seclusion to deliberate, we can expect extraordinary attention to turn again to Vatican City when the new pope is elected and then installed as bishop of Rome.
Why all this attention? The Catholic church, of course, knows a lot about pageantry. The architecture and statues of St. Peter’s square and the scarlet vestments of all the cardinals billowing in the breeze make great television. The many languages of the Pope’s funeral, from Latin, Italian, and Polish, to Swahili and Tagalog, are a powerful sign of universal reach of the Catholic community. In a time of globalization, using these languages makes clear how the Catholic church is the world’s oldest and largest global community. The Pope was himself a global person in the reach of his compassionate concern, in his commitment to justice for the poor, and in his travels to the four corners of the earth. But more has been going on over this week than media attention to pageantry and recognition that the Pope was indeed an extraordinary man.
The most important symbols at the papal funeral were the same as the symbols at every Catholic funeral. The Pope’s plain wood coffin showed that John Paul II was a mortal human just like each of us is. The coffin in St. Peter’s square stood under the crucifix—the sign that Jesus had to surrender himself to death just as each of us will. In the face of his final illness, the pope followed Jesus in saying: Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. Each of us will one day be called to say that too. The pope’s wooden coffin under the sign of the cross showed us that every human being, whether rich or poor, powerful or seemingly insignificant, faces this same reality of death. The attention so many have devoted to the events in Vatican City show how deeply we want to be able to say what the pope said: “Into your hands, O loving God, we commit our spirits.” We trust in your love, O God. When we must finally let go of everything, we will not fall into a deep hole of darkness, but into your loving arms that will sustain us in life.
Can we say that? Two of the other symbols at the Pope’s funeral invite us to believe and hope we can. On top of the wooden coffin was the book of the gospels, the foundation of our faith. Near the coffin stood the Easter candle, sign of our hope in resurrection. The first reading today contains the gospel of Jesus in its most direct form. In his very first sermon Peter proclaimed it this way:
Jesus the Nazorean was a man commended to you by God with mighty deeds, which God worked through him in your midst. . . . You killed him, using lawless men to crucify him. But God raised him up, releasing him from the throes of death, because it was impossible for him to be held by [death].
This is the utterly good news that death is not the final word. God raised Jesus from death, so death has no more power over him. Since Jesus is one of us—fully a human being—Christian faith is trust that death has no more power over us either. Our hope is that we, too, will be raised up. The book of the gospels on the Pope’s coffin was a sign of his faith in this good news. The Easter candle standing by his casket was a sign of his firm hope of sharing in Christ’s victory over death.
The book of the gospels and the Easter candle are present in the same way at every Catholic funeral. The gospel book will be on our coffin and the Easter candle will stand at the head of our casket. That book of the gospels is here with us today. And that same Easter candle stands among us right now. They invite us to faith that we will be set free from death and to hope that we will share fully in the joy of eternal life. The Gospel book and the Easter candle invite us to pray that we can grow in this faith and hope.
David Hollenbach, S.J. St. Ignatius Church April 10, 2005