by Rev. Anthony L. Cecil, Jr.
Losing a loved one will never be an easy experience, no matter how “expected” the death is. Yet, as with everything, somehow God provides a way to reveal God’s presence in the simplest, most surprising of ways—even as an unassuming reminder buried in the bounteous options of liturgical texts.
Last Spring, I experienced several life-changing events at pretty much the exact same time. In May, I graduated from seminary, finishing eight long years of study and formation, and ending my twenty-one years as a student. Then came ordination, and the day after, presiding at Mass for the first time. We gathered at my home parish to celebrate the sixth Sunday of Easter. During this Mass, I also celebrated the Sacrament of Confirmation for the first time, bringing my mother into full communion with the Catholic Church, and moments later, shared the Eucharist with her for the first time.
Just eight days later, my life changed again. I celebrated a funeral for the first time. It was my father’s. My dad was my strongest supporter, my fiercest critic, and my best friend. He’d been sick for a while, and while his death was expected, we didn’t expect it to come so soon.
Celebrating that funeral was a daunting task, and a heart-wrenching experience—that is, until the Preface. As I said, this was the first funeral I’d ever celebrated, so being the “newbie” that I was, I simply chose Preface I for the Dead, “The Hope of Resurrection in Christ.” The title sounded good, at least. It reads, in part:
In him the hope of blessed resurrection has dawned,
that those saddened by the certainty of dying
might be consoled by the promise of immortality to come.
Indeed for your faithful, Lord,
life is changed, not ended,
and, when this earthly dwelling turns to dust,
an eternal dwelling is made ready for them in heaven.
It was a single line—not even a full sentence—that hit me the most, Indeed for your faithful, Lord, life is changed, not ended.
Of course, these words refer to the deceased; after all, it is a Preface “for the dead.” But in that moment, so many things clicked for me. In that moment, I understood what I’d heard so often, that the funeral rites are as necessary for the living as they are for the dead. As Catholic Christians we live with the hope of resurrection, the hope that bodily death is not the end of a person, but rather a change, a transition into eternal life.
In that moment, I understood the same was true for this seemingly modest sentiment, that, Indeed for your faithful, Lord, life is changed, not ended. For my father, this was certainly true. Yet, this was also true for me—even with all these “firsts,” my life felt like it had ended. But the abiding truth is, neither my life, nor my father’s, had ended; they had simply changed. My relationship with my father had not ended, it had simply changed.
Recently, I was in a meeting and someone made a comment about the liturgy and its importance relative to other pressing issues in the Church. My response was a conviction that I’ve held for quite a while, “Well, the liturgy is everything!” What I meant by this was that I am convinced that what we celebrate liturgically speaks to our actual lived experience.
This conviction was deepened in that moment standing behind the altar of a small country church for my father’s funeral. I’d never experienced so fully: that every aspect of our lives, every human emotion and experience can find a home in the liturgy. Through the liturgical life of the Church, God’s mercy can echo, even in the deepest valleys and darkest chambers of our suffering.
The fact that the liturgy informs our lives outside the brick and mortar of a church building gives it an inherently pastoral nature. Devastation, turmoil, and distress comes into our lives and preaches the message that everything is over. We lose someone that we loved, and we can’t imagine a life without them. Even now, a global pandemic has caused us to change our routines and our way of life, and it seems like things may never be normal again. In that distress enters the danger of losing hope. It is a danger, because it is the antithesis of who we are as Christians, a people whose entire lives are hinged on the greatest hope of all: the resurrection of our Savior.
No matter the cause of our distress, while it may feel as if everything has been thrown into confusion and that our world has stopped turning, and unshakable truth is found in the liturgy. Eventually, tomorrow will come, the hope of new life—resurrection—will dawn, our minds will clear, and we will realize that life has not ended, it has simply changed.
Father Tony Cecil was ordained in May 2019. He is now associate pastor of Epiphany and St. Martin de Porres parishes in Louisville, Kentucky.