Friday, June 16, 2017

Ministry of Death

Allowing death to teach us how to live
2 Corinthians 3:4-11 
Brothers and sisters: Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. Not that of ourselves we are qualified to take credit for anything as coming from us; rather, our qualification comes from God, who has indeed qualified us as ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, was so glorious that the children of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of its glory that was going to fade, how much more will the ministry of the Spirit be glorious? For if the ministry of condemnation was glorious, the ministry of righteousness will abound much more in glory. Indeed, what was endowed with glory has come to have no glory in this respect because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was going to fade was glorious, how much more will what endures be glorious.

          One of the occupational hazards of being a priest is having to do funerals. If you’ve been wondering why I haven’t had morning Masses, it’s because I’ll have had seven funerals in two weeks. Two weeks ago, I had the funeral for the very sad passing of Stacy Forsgren, a young lady who left behind three young children. Last Monday was the funeral for Arthur Rideout, Sr., a man always ready with a compliment. He said I was very good-looking, so I really liked him. On Thursday, we had the funeral for Charlene Dean, a woman who was beautiful on the inside as well as the outside. On Monday (two days ago) was the funeral for Mary Ann Huck, who was 97 years old and had pretty much seen everything in life. Yesterday was Bill Etzkorn’s funeral, who always gave me “a Coke and a smile” when I took him Holy Communion on First Fridays. And next Monday will be the funeral for Blanche Tinder, another wonderful and faithful I.C. parishioner. I once heard it said that you know you’re getting old when you know more people in heaven than you do on earth. Well, I’ve gotten a lot older in the past two weeks. Whoever said that “funerals come in threes” never worked at I.C. Church. Another friend texted me and said, “Fr. John, you’re burying half the people in Fort Smith!” Funerals are a priest’s occupational hazard.

            But I’ve found that this occupational hazard can also be an occupational blessing. How so? Well, funerals don’t just make you think about death more, they can also surprisingly make you think about life more. Two life lessons have really hit me forcefully through all these funerals. First, I’ve learned that life can be short, like the life of Stacy Forsgren, so make the most of it; no one is guaranteed a long life. Don’t become so busy or caught up in the rat race that you don’t take time to stop and smell the roses. Visit your elderly parents, tell your spouse you truly love them by going on a “date night,” go fishing with your grandchildren, play cards with your family like Bill Etzkorn loved to do. Simply stop and be alive.

            Secondly, death reminds us that this life is not all there is, but we may look forward to the next life, hopefully in heaven, after we are purified and perfected in purgatory. I’ve had to counsel several terminally ill people who obviously have to think about death a lot. Sometimes the pain and suffering makes them wish for death, and they feel guilty for wanting to die. I suggest that they shouldn’t long for death so much as they should long for the after-life, and death is the doorway. It’s  subtle difference to desire the after-life rather than death, but it’s a significant one, and it can be spiritually rewarding.  In other words, death can be an occupational blessing by making us appreciate this life, and also by making us look forward to the next life.

             St. Paul writes to the Corinthians in his second letter: “If the ministry of death was so glorious…how much more will the ministry of the Spirit be glorious?” Clearly, that’s a mysterious thing to say, but maybe it means that priests who do a lot of the “ministry of death” (like funerals) shouldn’t forget that they likewise conduct a considerable amount of the “ministry of the Spirit,” who gives life both in this world and in the next. In other words, and very ironically, death itself become a great life lesson.

             Of course, the Knights of Columbus would not be surprised by any of this. Their motto is “tempus fugit, memento mori,” which means “time flies, remember death.” If you’re the pastor of Immaculate Conception Church, it’s impossible to forget it.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

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