As we consider the Church’s funeral rites in the current round of ti morceaux, and especially now the funeral itself, some have expressed some surprise that the Mass is viewed as the quintessential ritual for Catholics who have died. Again, “The Mass, the memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection, is the principal celebration of the Christian funeral” (Order of Christian Funerals, no. 5).
As I mentioned a couple of morceaux ago, the reason for this, honestly, is that the Mass is the actual re-presentation of the Paschal Mystery, the essential fact that meaningful life – that is, worthwhile existence in this world and eternal joy in the next! – comes only through the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.
I suppose one reason for a bit of wonder at the importance of the funeral Mass is the additional emphasis of baptismal imagery when celebrating funerals. And this makes sense: baptism typically marks one’s birth into this life and into the faith; funerals mark one’s birth into eternity. Almost everyone has noted that at both celebrations – baptisms and funerals – washing with holy water, clothing with a white garment, and the burning of the Easter Candle are obvious parallels.
Yet it’s good to remember that these “baptismal” images and actions also serve to emphasize the Paschal Mystery. Being plunged into the waters of baptism and then rising out of them renewed and changed is a key theological concept emphasizing change for the better. As St. Paul’s famous passage puts it: “we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death. Indeed we were buried with Him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life. For if we have grown into union with Him through a death like His, we shall also be united with Him in the resurrection” (Rom 6:3-6).
Some people are put off by the emphasis which the Catholic Church gives to embracing death. We look upon it not as something to be avoided at all costs, but rather to be properly embraced as the next step in life. True, there is much still to do here on earth, and we need not be eager to die, even if this could be done painlessly and peacefully! But as believers, we also are hopeful of joining the Lord in eternal glory. That’s not a future to shrink from!