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School of Theology and Ministry

Homily - Funeral Mass for Rev. Daniel J. Harrington, S.J.

february 12, 2014, st. ignatius church, boston college


From Rev. Thomas Stegman, S.J., Associate Professor of New Testament

Based on: Sir 39:1-11; Ps 23; Rom 12:1-8; John 12:20-26

On behalf of the Faber Jesuit Community and the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, I offer heartfelt love and condolences to Ed and Marilyn and to your whole family. I must say, Ed, that your care for your brother these last years and, especially, these last weeks was inspiring. The numerous times you took Dan to Mt. Auburn or to Beth Israel Deaconness, and waited for him; the hours you spent with him at Campion Center; the vigil you and Marilyn kept last week. You taught me—and many of us—what brotherly love and care is all about.

It should come as no surprise that Daniel Harrington—Jesuit, priest, teacher, and Scripture scholar par excellence—has provided us this evening with rich and abundant fare of God’s Word. We heard from Sirach: “as [the scribe] meditates upon God’s mysteries, he will show the wisdom of what he has learned and glory in the [words] of the Lord’s covenant.” We heard from St. Paul: “I urge you . . . to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.” And, from John’s Gospel, we heard Jesus’ words: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” Rich and abundant fare indeed.

In honor of Dan, I’m going to divide my reflections on the intersection of the Word we have just heard and the testimony of Dan’s life into three parts: 1) the portrait of the humble scribe of God; 2) Dan’s life as an embodiment of ‘a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God’; 3) and his witness to resurrection faith. But first, please allow me a brief prolegomena from the opening lines of our gospel reading. Any questions . . . okay! I think we can begin now.

I admit I was surprised that Dan included in the gospel passage for tonight the detail about the Greeks approaching Philip, Philip approaching Andrew, and then the two disciples approaching Jesus. At one level, these details set up Jesus’ solemn proclamation about the grain of wheat. But at a deeper level—an exegetical level!—the reference to Andrew and Philip here recalls the opening of the gospel narrative. There, John the Baptist points to Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” At this testimony, Andrew starts to follow Jesus, who turns around and asks, “What are you looking for?” And Andrew proposes what, at first glance, is a peculiar question: pou meneis, typically rendered “Where are you staying?” To which Jesus responds, “Come and see.” Andrew’s acceptance of the invitation was so momentous that the time of day was marked: “It was four in the afternoon.”

What did Andrew see? And what is the significance of his question? In all actuality, Andrew’s question was quite apposite, at least in John’s worldview. “Where do you stay” can be expressed as “Where do you abide? Where do you remain?” Abiding / Remaining is a key theme in John. The Word has abided from eternity in the bosom of the Father. The Spirit abides in Jesus in his life and ministry. Jesus invites his disciples to abide in him as branches on a vine. What Andrew must have “seen” was some glimpse of these wondrous realities. And that made all the difference in his life. Then he, along with Philip, shared this experience with others—including Simon Peter and Nathaniel.

Our brother Dan recognized at a very deep, existential level the presence of God in the Word made flesh—and in the revelation of God’s word in Sacred Scripture. He loved this Word, and shared his love and knowledge of it with thousands of students.

Dan himself had a singularly significant encounter with God’s Word as a young boy. As many of you know, Dan struggled with stuttering. He was delighted to find out, as a child, that Moses had difficulty with speech, and that God promised to give Moses the help he needed to do what God called him to do. This passage remained foundational and inspirational to Dan: God would help him speak. It made all the difference.

Now, to the three points: First, Sirach’s portrait of the scribe, the student and teacher of Scripture. It is surely a good description of Dan, is it not? Yet, were you surprised at the bold claims at the end: “Many will praise his understanding; his name can never be blotted out;/ Unfading will be his memory, through all generations his name will live;/ Peoples will speak of his wisdom, and the assembly will declare his praise./ While he lives he is one out of a thousand, and when he dies he leaves a good name”? These claims are made about the scribe, not God! Do these words sound like those of a humble man, as we all know Dan was?

In fact, this sanguine assessment is very humble. Humble like the words of Mary in her Magnificat, where she sings that her very being proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and “from this day all generations will call me blessed.” Mary sings these words because God has looked with favor upon her lowliness; because the Almighty has done great things for her and holy is his name. I submit that Dan’s life bears witness to one who, like Mary, profoundly knew God’s great love for him; and similar to Mary, Dan brought forth God’s Word to so many others. He brought forth God’s Word with gratitude for the immense gifts and talents he was given; with fidelity to God who was always so faithful to him; and with love. Humility is about naming the truth in one’s life; it is about proclaiming what God has done and is doing. Dan lived these realities day in and day out.

Dan bore several marks of true humility. He knew he was loved—certainly, loved by God, and also loved by his family and brother Jesuits. As I got to know Dan over time, he shared numerous stories of his upbringing in Arlington. Ed’s love that I mentioned at the outset is surely an outgrowth of a family rooted in faith and love. Though he was certainly complex, Dan was not complicated. He didn’t suffer from things so many others do: the need to prove himself, to earn others’ love and respect, to compare himself with others, to tear them down. Dan’s wants and pleasures were simple. Those long walks he took were, I imagine, not just for thinking great thoughts; they were a time to commune with God who so loved him and whom Dan so loved.

Another mark of humility: Dan was grateful. He remembered those who helped him on the way. I recall, a few years back, Dan and I were part of a C 21 program on the gospels. Dan’s first grade teacher was there, and he introduced her to me. Then, at the outset of his presentation—before saying a word about the Gospel of Matthew—he publicly recognized and thanked his teacher. Dan often spoke of the Jesuits who taught him in the Juniorate and who inspired him to go into Scripture studies, “an up and coming field,” as one put it—men such as Pat Sullivan, John Collins, and Fred Moriarity. And Dan was aware of being at Harvard for doctoral studies at a particularly auspicious time. His relationship with his doktorvater, John Strugnell, was truly inspiring. Dan appreciated the training and help he received; in turn, he later demonstrated great pietas toward Dr. Strugnell, especially after the latter’s decline in health. I remember from my student days in Cambridge seeing Dan walk with John on Sunday afternoons, something he did faithfully nearly every week.

Yet another mark of humility: Dan was a true friend. One of the reasons he loved the book of Sirach so much was because it speaks so eloquently of friendship. Dan was generous in sharing his expertise and advice. He rejoiced in the success of others. I can attest that I would not be standing here today, either in this pulpit, or as a Scripture scholar, if it were not for Dan’s help and support. Indeed, over the last several years, Dan and I developed an early morning ritual. Whoever showed up second at school (usually me) would go to the other’s office (usually Dan’s) and spend ten or fifteen minutes talking—most often about sports, including reminiscences about our own playing days; sometimes about the weather (Dan loved to mimic the weathercaster’s predictions of the next “storm of the century”); about what was going on in school; and yes, even about the New Testament! The conversation often ended with the mutually agreed assessment that we have “the best job in the world.”

I should also point out that Dan’s choice of the reading from Sirach is another expression of true friendship. His closest friend, about whom he told me much, was Anthony Saldarini. Tony, who taught Scripture in the Theology Department at Boston College, died all too young in 2001 after a lengthy illness. The reading we heard is what Tony’s wife, Maureen, chose for his funeral liturgy. It is special that Dan selected this same lection for his own funeral liturgy, and that he asked Maureen to read it. A few days ago Maureen shared with me about how Dan was so good to her and her family after Tony’s passing; she in turn was so good to Dan, especially in his final weeks. Friends indeed.

Two final anecdotes about Dan’s humility: When I was applying for doctoral programs, I asked Dan for his advice. He pointed me to three or four programs and said that was sufficient. I asked him how many programs he had applied to. He said, “One. Harvard had the perfect program for me.” I then asked him, “But what if you didn’t get accepted?” He simply replied, “I put things in God’s hands. If it was God’s will, I’d be accepted. Otherwise, I would have been happy to teach Latin at Boston College High School.” He said that without a hint of irony.

Some of you were present at the tribute the STM held for Dan last November. A few days before the event, he asked me if he could say a few words at the end. I said, “Dan, it’s your event; you can do whatever you want!” He emailed me the comments so that I could have them printed out for him. You may recall that, at the end of the presentations, he said he had two paragraphs worth of comments. And he spoke with typical brevity. Actually, Dan had seven paragraphs prepared. But, because the presenters had done such a thorough job of describing Dan as teacher and scholar, he did not see the need to repeat. I share this because Dan really wanted people to know about four topics that were dear to his heart and which he emphasized in his scholarly work: 1) the Jewish context of the New Testament; 2) the collaborative nature of biblical scholarship; 3) the need for Scripture to be the foundation of all aspects of theology; and 4) the importance of building bridges between scholarly and more popular interpretations of Scripture.

Dan was a humble man who, because he constantly meditated on God’s mysteries, because he received such wonderful training, and because he was so devoted in love for God’s Word, incarnated the portrait of the scribe so beautifully described by Sirach—one who showed the wisdom of what he learned from studying the sacra pagina, the Sacred Page.

The second point. The reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans is so appropriate for Dan. The crucial word, in my opinion, is the little word oun (“therefore”) at the beginning. It marks a crucial transition in the letter. Up to this point, Paul has been setting forth the good news: how God’s covenant faithfulness has been revealed through Christ’s death and resurrection, how God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the gift of the Spirit, and, in the verses immediately preceding, how God’s promises to his people Israel are irrevocable and that “all Israel will be saved.” Incidentally, it is this passage on God’s relationship with Israel which played an important role in Nostra Aetate, Vatican II’s declaration on the Church’s relation to other religions. In particular, this document has been instrumental in the amelioration of Jewish-Christian relations, something Dan was very passionate about.

Back to the “therefore”: In light of all that God has done through the sending of Jesus and the outpouring of the Spirit, what is the appropriate response on our part? What ought one to do? For Paul, it is to offer one’s whole self, each and every day, in love of God and in service of the gospel.

Last year at a “town hall” meeting at the Faber Jesuit Community, Dan was one of five panelists invited to reflect on the Jesuit vocation. One of the questions posed to the panelists was: What gets you out of bed every morning? Dan famously answered, “The Bible gets me out of bed every morning.” Dan was well-known for his discipline and routines. If the people of Königsburg could set their clocks by Immanuel Kant’s daily stroll, all the more could those who knew Dan’s habits do so. It was such discipline and routine—not to mention, brilliance—that allowed Dan to publish dozens of books and scores of articles, to edit the first Catholic multi-volume series of New Testament commentaries in English, to abstract over 50,000 articles and write 20,000 book notices; oh, and also, to teach hundreds of classes and to preach thousands of homilies.

Because of Dan’s work with New Testament Abstracts, which originated at Weston College, it is no exaggeration to say he knew more about what goes on in New Testament studies than anyone in the world. And I will let you in on a dirty little secret: Not everything that is written is good or worthwhile; indeed, there’s much chaff among the wheat (the work of present company, of course, excluded). Nevertheless, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, Dan faithfully worked his way through the myriads of publications to keep the guild updated. I once asked him how he did it. Dan answered matter-of-factly, “Once you’re on top of things, it’s pretty easy to maintain.” Remarkable.

Dan did not  require much time to prepare for courses, although he certainly updated his lectures. As students, we were in awe of how his lectures invariably came to a perfect, eloquent conclusion just as the second hand swept over the Twelve. When I co-taught with Dan, I was  even more in awe, because I could see him shuffling his notes behind the lectern—depending on the number of questions asked—adjusting his prepared comments to fit the time frame. To use a sports metaphor, Dan always had a great game plan for class, but he could also call an audible.

Dan was famous for returning students’ work back to them quickly. He directed and read hundreds of theses, and was a great help to students in formulating their arguments. I can attest to the time he took to read his colleagues’ works, always offering words of encouragement and constructive criticism. Dan did more than his share of service work at school, and took active and leading roles in professional guilds. Indeed, the Bible got him out of bed.

But before he got to the Bible, I am convinced that Dan prayed. Indeed, to be a good student of the Word of God, one must learn to be a good listener. Dan listened to God’s Word in prayer and study; in fact, I am not sure how much he differentiated between them. From an outsider’s perspective, one might characterize him as a workaholic. But that was far from the case. Dan did not regard his tasks and roles as “work.” They were labors of love—love for God whose Word he taught; love for his students; and love for his colleagues.

While Dan labored hard during the week, he was also faithful to celebrating the Lord’s Day, the Christian Shabbat. He simply did not do professional academic work on Sundays. That is not to say Dan sat around and did nothing. He was a regular presider at the 6:00 PM Mass at his home parish, St. Agnes in Arlington, for over 40 years; since I have known him, he also presided and preached at the Noon Mass at St. Peter’s in Cambridge. In between, he enjoyed walks and watching his beloved Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics, or Bruins, depending on the season. (Being a Midwesterner, I always appreciated that Dan was aware of what was going on in the world of sports beyond Route 128.) But the point to highlight, the behavior to emulate, is that Dan truly re-created on Sundays; he rested in the Lord. It was such groundedness that enabled him to offer himself every day as “a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.”

This leads to my third point: Dan’s witness to resurrection hope through his faithfulness to God as he was stripped, slowly, of good health—and, these past months, was stripped of the ability to write, to teach, and to abstract. We come full circle to tonight’s reading from John’s Gospel. Dan believed, and lived out of the faith, that his life was a grain of wheat. His sacrifice and service, as we have been reflecting on, have borne—and will continue for years to bear—much fruit. But he also came face to face with letting go of life here in order to receive the fullness of life, life in the bosom of God in community with all the saints.

On St. Patrick’s Day in 2009, Dan was diagnosed with serious prostate cancer; indeed, the cancer was already widespread. Dan’s life now changed dramatically. The Jesuit community and school had just lost Bob Manning to prostate cancer the previous fall. We all saw the toll that disease took on Bob and the courage with which he faced it.

Dan entered into this phase of his life with faith—that God, the Good Shepherd, would be present to him throughout the ordeal; Dan did so with determination—he wanted to continue to teach, write, and abstract as long as he could; and he did so with hope—that his illness would culminate in the fullness of life. I mentioned earlier Dan’s great discipline and how he organized his life. One of the things he had to let go of was control over his time and schedule, especially in the last years. Doctors’ appointments, clinical trial treatments, sitting in waiting rooms. . . . Dan never complained. To the contrary, he was grateful for the care he received. “Lucky me” was a refrain I heard dozens of times. The medicines and experimental treatments offered life-prolongation, allowing him to continue his ministry of the Word. Indeed, until last summer, his output was near his own high standards.

Two rounds of chemotherapy were enough to convince Dan to enter into palliative care mode last summer. He invited me to go with him for his first visit to his palliative care physician. We wanted to know how realistic it was for Dan to continue to teach. He really wanted to teach one last year, and I was committed to his going out on his terms. We compromised on course load. The physician thought, given the care Dan was receiving, we could make a go of it.

I will never forget the day in October when a voice mail was waiting for me as I returned from class. It was Dan, calling from Foster Street. With voice cracking, he said, “I can’t teach anymore.” That was the first of a series of poignant, final “lettings go,” which Dan did with great humility and dignity. He let go of his office at school and his room at Faber Jesuit Community. He left with very little because he possessed very little. Dan’s simplicity of life was a marvel.

Dan’s caretakers at Campion Center encouraged him to focus on one or two things, letting go of all else. In that context, in November I heard a five-letter word I never dreamt I would hear come out of his mouth: “Skype!” (I heard a few four-letter words over the years, usually in the context of a computer or copier not cooperating with him.) Dan desired to Skype two lectures, including the final lecture of the Introduction to New Testament class. And Skype he did. Dan was literally larger than life as he was projected onto the screen of a room filled with sixty-two students and more than a few onlookers, many with tears in their eyes.

That was Dan’s last class. Soon came his letting go of editing page proofs for New Testament Abstracts. And then there was letting go of any independent mobility, as he was bed-ridden the final week. In all this, Dan was gracious, always grateful for the care he was receiving and for the visitors who came—“Lucky me.”

One last story: A week ago Saturday, a couple of Jesuits and I went to visit Dan to celebrate the Anointing of the Sick. Dan had indicated he would like to be anointed again and to receive the Eucharist. Ed was with us. We celebrated the anointing, though Dan fell asleep as soon as we started. About ten minutes later, he came to. I joked with him that he must have been overcome by the power of the Holy Spirit. He laughed. Dan still wanted to receive Communion, and I gave him a small particle of the Eucharistic host. Then, a few minutes later, he said something extraordinarily beautiful: “Well, I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. . . . But whatever it is, I’m looking forward to it.”

The grain of wheat has fallen into the ground and died. And Daniel Harrington, the humble scribe, whose life was a living sacrifice of service and praise of the Word he so loved, now knows the fullness of eternal life. This life was the horizon toward which he moved his entire life. And this is the life to which he bore faithful, courageous, and loving witness.