Thursday, December 24, 2015

bereaved at Christmas: a homily

May I speak in the name of the Almighty, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen

I'd like to thank Fr O'Mahony for his kindness in inviting me to preach the homily this morning. I won't speak too much about my father – my brother will be saying a few words about him later and two eulogies not only are unnecessary, but Jim will do a better job telling you about my father than I ever could. Suffice it to say that he was a good Catholic all his life and a fine example of Christian living to all who knew him, especially his children, and I am sure God in his infinite mercy has received him kindly into his eternal reward.

Christmas is often thought of as a bad time for a bereavement. No time is a good one to lose a loved one; but Christmas, a time when families gather together to celebrate can be a particularly hard one to have a place at the table that has only recently been left vacant, with perhaps presents under the tree that will now never be opened by the person they were intended for.

And yet, let us think of what the message of Christmas is. It is the time of the Incarnation, when God himself became man and came into the world as a tiny baby. But he did not do this so that we might have sweet images of a mother and child to put upon our Christmas cards or romantic nativity scenes full of shepherds and angels and wise men to place beneath our Christmas trees or somewhere in our churches. He came to redeem to world – for God so loved the world that he sent his only Son that all might be saved, as St John tells us. He came to save us from our sins: the original sin of our first parents; and the sins we commit ourselves, whether by what we do or by what we fail to do, in thought, and word, and deed.

To do so, that tiny baby was, when he grew up, going to suffer and die for you, for me, for everyone who has ever lived, and who will ever live until the end of time. The wood of the manger the helpless baby lies in reminds us also of the wood of the cross that the grown man would chose to allow himself to be nailed to. Because by doing so he opened the door to heaven for all mankind.

And during his life he promised that all of those who trusted in him would enter into that eternal life that he had become man to purchase for them. And when each of us dies, we face the fulfilment of that promise – the promise that had its beginning at this birth at Christmas. That means that although it can make this a hard time for those left behind to be bereaved and face a funeral, it can also be seen, in a way, as being a particularly fitting time. The promise of eternal life is brought to its fulfilment at the time when we remember most the time when that promise first was made, the anniversary of the birth of Christ.

Losing a loved one at Christmas time takes away not a single happy memory we have of that person or of Christmases past that we had with them; and indeed, if we have hope that they spend this Christmas with other loved ones in heaven, we may consider that we have only another happy memory to add to those we already have. I have no reason not to believe that my father at his passing from this life did not enter into the fullness of the eternal life that Christ promised him, as he promises us all. He lived all his life as a good Catholic and a faithful son of the Church. He did all that was asked and expected of him as a Christian, not grudgingly but lovingly, as someone who loved God and knew himself to be known and loved by him. And I can only pray that when the day comes for each one here to end their journey through this life, those they leave behind will have the same comfort that Jim, Joan, and I, and all who knew and loved Jerry Burke in believing that he knows today the joy of the promises all mankind received through the birth of our Lord on the day of that first Christmas so long ago. Amen.
written for the occasion of the funeral of my father, Jeremiah Burke, Christmas Eve 2015.

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