Remembering Cody Unterseher

Homily – Cody Unterseher Memorial Service
Rev. Dr. Maxwell E. Johnson, Obl.S.B.

We all thought, hoped, and prayed that Cody would be coming back to us; perhaps with limited peripheral vision, but coming back, indeed. But it was not to be.

Cody’s tragic, untimely, and unexpected death at age 36 makes concrete for us in a particular way that what we, as a community of scholars, study, teach, and learn, truly matters.

A former teacher of mine – Gabriele Winkler – once said: “We must become fully permeated with Liturgy in the very depths of our beings.” No one I know has better exemplified this permeation with Liturgy than Cody.

As contributors to the blog, Pray Tell, where Cody had some 74 entries, wrote in recent tribute to him:

He had “scholarly insight, pastoral sensitivity, humor in the face of the ridiculous, and sheer joy for the liturgy.”


“He showed us the value of ecumenism and that we aren’t as far apart as we sometimes think. He loved the liturgy and brought joy to his work, always.”

And liturgical scholar Rita Ferrone said of him,

“The knowledge and expertise he had he also shared gladly, performing prodigies of labor for friends and mentors and for his beloved parish. Cody felt himself to have a mission – a mission of reconciliation. Not only did he encourage mutual appreciation as our ‘resident Episcopalian’ (as he once termed himself here), but he also rejoiced whenever he could be an instrument of peace between factions in the so-called ‘liturgy wars’.”

Cody was indeed permeated with the Liturgy, its history, its ritual diversity, its theology, texts, contexts, and spirit.

In the hospital over the days before his death, his mother read to him from the Gospel of John, the Didache, and the modern Eucharistic prayers of the Roman (from the 1998 translation I’m sure) and other Rites, during which he indicated his recognition and approval by a squeeze of the hand.

Because he was permeated with Liturgy, Cody had been rehearsing for the moment of his death since the day of his baptism into Christ’s Paschal Mystery many years ago. For, indeed, as St. Paul tells us, “we have been buried with Christ by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

This Paschal pattern of life, this living out of our plunge into the dying and rising of Christ becomes the daily rhythm of life, the heart beat, the daily memento mori that Cody also knew as a Benedictine oblate of Assumption Abbey in Richardton, North Dakota. And because of this Cody knew that his death was not the end but a stage in the journey of his life.

For, as Mark Searle (+1992) reminded many of us years ago in words written in his own funeral worship folder:

If…we were to learn from the celebration of the paschal mystery to surrender our lives totally to God in Christ, the death of the Christian would be but the further and final rehearsal of a pattern learnt in life and practiced over and over again in a lifetime of liturgical participation….[F]or those who have learnt from the prayers and rituals of the Christian liturgy how to let go of all that we cling to to save ourselves from the void, the final surrender of death will be a familiar and joyous sacrifice. (cf. Mark Searle, “Editorial,” Assembly 5:5, March 1979)

To be permeated with Liturgy as Cody was, is also to be filled with a decidedly Eucharistic vision of the future of the Church when all would be one and, indeed, of the reign of God itself.

Our first reading captures that vision so well: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.

A liturgiologist’s view of heaven if there ever was one, where the Good Shepherd prepares the banquet table and the cups of wine are overflowing and abundant; the wedding at Cana with the good wines served last.”

No heavenly harps played on floating clouds, but a banquet, a celebration, a feast “where the LORD God will wipe away tears from all faces,” that feast fore-tasted at every Eucharist and now enjoyed by Cody at the banquet table in heaven.

Like parents and children, teachers are not supposed to have their students die before them. Young friends and colleagues are not supposed to have their friends die, especially when they are together preparing for bright and promising futures in which death seems so far away, so distant, especially when candidacy exams had been passed and a dissertation proposal already approved.

Cody’s death at age 36 makes concrete for us in a particular way that what we do as a community of scholars truly matters.

“I am the resurrection and the life,” says Jesus, “those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

Yes, what we do as a community of scholars truly matters.

But more than this, as Sister Mary Catherine Hilkert said to me when we learned the news of Cody’s death, “all this stuff we do, is also true.” And it is especially true for Cody! May his memory be eternal.

Maxwell Johnson was Cody’s academic advisor. This homily was delivered at the memorial service at Notre Dame on May 2nd.


  1. Thank you for your words, Max. It is indeed true that “in the midst of life, we are eveloped in death;” yet the reverse also is true, namely that in the midst of death, we are enveloped in life — in God’s own life no less. And between those two truths, the latter one is the deeper, and lasting one.

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