Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Even At The Grave We Make Our Song

On Friday, July 30th, I left the office and headed home, looking forward to beginning my holiday time. My final ten days in the office before my holidays were to begin were days in which I was filled with joy and gratitude at being a priest in the Church. I count it a great privilege to journey with the people of this place through moments of joy and moments of sadness. Two funerals, two weddings, a confirmation, and a couple of more wedding interviews were all features of these days leading up to vacation time. Each event was filled with such abounding grace and love. Although ready for a holiday, I was feeling grateful to God for being called into this wonderful vocation.

I arrived home that evening to the unnerving news that my sister-in-law (Athena’s youngest sister), who was expecting, had gone into labour at 23 weeks. We hurried to the hospital and it quickly became clear that the outlook was not at all good. The next morning (in a sad convergence of events, as it was also Athena’s birthday), my sister-in-law gave birth to a stillborn baby boy. What was supposed to have been a joyous beginning in the life of this young couple, gave way so quickly to shock and bereavement, and we were all left wondering, “why?”

The next evening, our family still dealing with the profound grief of this loss, I received an email from Archbishop Colin Johnson, which was sent to all the clergy of the diocese, that our former area bishop, the Rt. Rev. Taylor Pryce, had died suddenly after a very brief battle with an aggressive form of cancer. When I was a very young man of 22, Bishop Pryce confirmed me, and actively encouraged me to seek Holy Orders. I shall always remember him presiding at the liturgy with such great joy and enthusiasm. He was a man who deeply loved his Lord and Master and served him well. I shall ever fondly remember him continuing to encourage me toward a life in ministry as our paths crossed over the years since his retirement. His death came as a great shock to many of us have felt his influence in our lives and ministries.

As a priest, when I preside at the funeral and burial of those who have departed this life and await their Resurrection on the last day, I invariably offer the following ancient words found in our liturgy, which have their origin in the Russian Church:
All of us go down to the dust, and yet even at the grave we make our song: “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!”

Sometimes, it is easier than others to make our song at the graveside. Sometimes, the Alleluias can be made with thanksgiving and without reservation. Last night I drove to St. James, Orillia, where Bishop Pryce was lying in state. I offered condolences to the family and stood before the casket of our dear bishop, and offered him a word of thanks for seeing in me the seed of a vocation when I was so doubtful. And I offered a prayer of thanksgiving to God for calling this man into his vocation as a bishop in the Church of God, and for sharing him with us for a time. It was easy to give thanks, to make my song, to praise God, and chant my Alleluia.

Tomorrow, I journey with a young couple to the funeral home as they plan their farewell to their child who knew life for but a short time and only in the warmth of his mother’s womb. How much more difficult it is to approach that graveside with a song, to form an Alleluia on our lips, when there are so many dashed hopes and unfulfilled dreams. This Alleluia is a much harder one to make.

But whatever the circumstance, it is my sacred duty and most solemn privilege as a priest in the Church to go to the grave and make that song. Whether we can make sense of a death, much less a life, is not what is at stake. What is at stake is the hope we have in the fullness of Christ that no matter the shortness or longevity of this earthly life, in Christ we shall be fully known in all our divine potentiality. As we journey into the arms of our Lord we attain the perfection that so eludes us in this pilgrimage; and this is why whether it be the death of a stillborn baby or a retired bishop we unfailingly make our song, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, and proclaim that in Christ, death has not won the day.

As a priest I shall sing that song for baby Isaac as I have sung it for my bishop, and I pray that in singing it, God shall deal tenderly with my frail human heart that still harbours its silent question, “why?”

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