‘Unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain...
This coming week heralds a year since we went into our first national lockdown and the real beginnings of the pandemic across the UK and the world beyond. It has not been an easy year for any of us and we have all experienced it very differently. For me as one of the younger priests in our pastoral area who was not required to shield and mercifully not seriously ill during the pandemic, there are many experiences that will stay in my memory for a life time. I write about two of these memories today as they link nicely with our Gospel for this Sunday.
The first lasting memory I write about today concerns the excess deaths in care homes during the first wave of the pandemic. During that first wave of the pandemic I almost dreaded the telephone ringing as it was either a call out to visit a care home to administer the Last Rites with often very basic PPE or it was one of our many funeral directors asking for me as one of the only available priests in the area who was not shielding, to do a graveside burial service or a funeral service at the crematorium, often for families who in ordinary times would have wanted a full requiem mass in church. In the first lockdown there was no parish secretary to staff the office due to the lockdown rules, so I would often return back from a funeral or care home to a message on the answer machine regarding another death or call out to another care home. I describe this experience to others as a tsunami of deaths and funerals, not only during the first peak but also again after Christmas.
The second lasting memory is of the many funerals I have taken this past year and the grieving families that I have tried my best to minister too and assist before and after the funeral has taken place. I estimate that I have probably taken more funerals this past year than I have in the rest of my priesthood combined. It has been an extremely difficult year for those who mourn and grieve because often loved ones have not been able to travel to be at the funeral and in the first wave very few mourners were allowed to attend funeral services at all except for immediate family members. Physical contact was also restricted by the social distancing rules so the comforting hug from family and friends has been notably absent. There were some funerals where no one at all was able to attend due to family and friends being overseas, so it was only me and funeral directors who were able to be physically present.
During this year of so many deaths, one of the fundamental questions of life which is asked by every generation has become more prominent: is there life after death and what happens after we die? Those who have no religious faith really struggle with these questions and how to answer them without giving offense or upset to others. I was given an account recently from somebody who had gone to a secular funeral service, with a so called celebrant, where it was announced at the end that all will be well as the deceased was now somewhere over the rainbow! With that inevitable song being played as they exited the crematorium – ‘somewhere over the rainbow.’ As the person walked away from telling me this they quipped: “Give me requiem mass when I go Father, won’t you, you can’t beat a requiem mass.” Yes, there is something very unique and very special about a requiem mass, because at its heart is the belief of everlasting life and of moving the soul on to the next life.
On hearing this account of the secular funeral service, I thought to myself, how nice, but did anyone there really believe the celebrant when he announced that the deceased was now somewhere over the rainbow? I don’t know how many rainbows you have seen, but they always seem to make a colourful arch beginning and ending in the ground and don’t last for very long. Not much comfort perhaps on a sad day I feel. Thank God for Christianity I said to myself, no going somewhere over the rainbow for us! God in all his glorious mystery came to earth as a man, in the person of Jesus Christ. He ends up being crucified by sinful humanity and dies on the cross for our sins and is raised up on the third day, the resurrection and the promise of eternal life in heaven. This is what we believe and thank God for it! I have often woken up during this pandemic and literally thanked God for the gift of faith! It may not always make sense to me, but it gives me hope! A hope founded on Truth and the Divine.
Our Gospel reading for this Sunday from John’s Gospel is the account of Jesus foretelling his own death and glorification on the cross to his disciples. This lays open the path that leads before us liturgically and spiritually as we contemplate and prepare for the approach of Holy Week which comes ever closer. What we get from this Gospel reading is that Jesus tells his disciples of his passion and death before it happens and makes it clear that he will suffer freely for the salvation of the world. John wants us to appreciate that it is through Jesus’ death that the separation between God and humanity caused by sin is about to be bridged. This is the great gift of God’s great love for us, the freely offered sacrifice of God himself, in the person of Jesus Christ. For ‘unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.’ Jesus’ death and resurrection did indeed yield a rich harvest and shows us that human life does not cease with death, but that death is a doorway into new and eternal life with God in heaven.
So in answer to the fundamental questions: is there life after death and what happens when we die? We know there is life after death, because Jesus rose from the dead on that first Easter morning and in doing so opened the gates of heaven for all those who believe in him! Let’s go out into the world and proclaim this wonderful truth. God bless, Fr Ross