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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Reason for the Season.

I didn't know Carl, but I know his son, Tracy and his partner Joe. Both men are parishioners at St. Paul's. Both men have been living with AIDS for about 20 years. Both are managing their lives and their attendant disabilities to the best of their abilities in their small apartment in a complex built for the frail elderly and the disabled.

Last Tuesday, Tracy lost his balance despite the assistance of his two canes and fell in the kitchen, splitting open his lip and cracking his head on the counter. Joe called the ambulance and both men spent most of Tuesday and the wee hours of Wednesday in the emergency room. They left the hospital around 7:30 AM, got some breakfast at a local diner, and went home to catch some sleep.

Tracy's cell phone started to ring at around 11 AM, but he had turned off the sound. He didn't get the call that his 81 year old father had taken a turn for the worse. By the time he awoke at 2 PM, his father had been "coded" three times and then allowed to die. Their guilt made their grief almost inconsolable.

Tracy asked if I would preside over a simple ceremony at the Funeral Home on Sunday night and then at the graveside service on Monday morning. "I haven't been able to come to church much," he apologized, "and I certainly haven't been able to contribute much of anything to the church. I have no right to ask this," he said, "but will you come? Will you say prayers for my father?"

The modesty of his request did not match the enormity of the privilege it is to have been asked.

"Of course you have a right," I said. "I'll be there."

It's times like these that I deeply appreciate the beauty of the language of the Prayer Book. The shape of the liturgy (to borrow the title of that classic book by Dom Gregory Dix) offers consolation and solace and hope in ways that transcend words.

But, it is the rituals we keep - as a church and as a culture - that continue to deeply move my soul.

The graveyard was covered in a blanket of ice and snow. The ground was colder and harder than even death. The wind whipped across our faces as if to remind us of the stark reality we were about to confront. His soul already bathed in Light Eternal, Carl (also know as "Pop," "Dad," and "Poppee" to his beloved granddaughters), was about to have his mortal remains lowered into the ground where they would find their final resting place.

He had been a cop. A native of Germany, he was a veteran of WWII, having served in the military forces of the Navy. He was also a deacon in his church, but when he lost his two daughters to drug overdose, the good Christian folk asked him to leave his position of leadership. If a man can't manage his own household . . . well, you know what the Bible says.

The police gave us an escort to the cemetery, which was a real blessing as we made our way from the funeral home in the congested traffic that is just part of life in North Jersey.

When we arrived, we were greeted by two officers, sent by the Navy, in full dress uniform. The casket, draped in an American flag, was brought to the bier, carefully if not precariously carried over the slippery, hard ground from the hearse to the graveside by the cemetery staff. It was a relatively short walk made almost torturously long in the wind and the cold. It was especially so for Tracy who ambled to the best of his ability on his two canes.

We took our positions by the casket, the plastic awning over the graveside groaning and snapping and not offering much protection from an occasional gust of ice-cold wind. One of the Navy men positioned himself at the head of the casket. The other, who carried a trumpet, walked a careful march to a place a short distance from the grave. One of the policemen, a rifle in his arms, stood just in front of him, forming a straight, military line in front of the Navy trumpeter.

I was struck by the way the light glimmered from behind them, casting their shadows on the icy snow.

I consecrated the grave, then commended Carl's body to God - "earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes." A few short prayers about the hope of resurrection and the solace of our faith, and the ritual of the church was complete. As I closed my book and rearranged my scarf to keep warm, the sound of men calling each other to attention broke the silence that had only been punctuated by the sound of human tears on the harsh wind.

The policeman snapped himself and his rifle to attention. Slap, slap. The sound of his leather gloves on the rifle were colder, somehow, than the sound of the wind slapping on the plastic awening.

From out of nowhere, the soulful notes of 'Taps' made their way across the ice and snow, warming the cold wind against our faces. We wept openly - those who knew Carl and those who did not - the tears freezing on our reddened faces. I put my arms around Carl's granddaughters and pulled them close to me to keep them warm. "I'm okay," the youngest one whispered, "I don't mind. This is my Poppee. I'll be here as long as it takes."

As the musical salute trailed to its haunting end, the policeman stepped aside as the two Navy men took their places at the casket, one at the head, one at the foot. In quick, sharp movements, they removed the flag from the casket and folded it with a precision that conveyed deep respect for this symbol of our country.

I wondered how often they had performed this ritual together for all the young soldiers, women and men, who had returned from Afghanistan and Iraq. There could be no doubt that this simple ceremony conveyed deep respect for the 'ultimate sacrifice' made by soldiers for their flag and their country. I wondered if their parents and family and friends had found comfort and hope in that.

One of the soldiers pulled the folded flag close to him in a tender gesture of something he obviously cherished and brought the flag to Tracy, himself a former Marine. In loud, very measured tones, the soldier said, "On behalf of the women and men who have served this country, I proudly present to you The American Flag as a token of our gratitude for your father's service."

Members of the family came forward to place a rose on the casket before it was lowered into the ground. Tears were shed and murmurs of prayers were spoken over the casket.

I noticed that people were removing their gloves to touch the casket one more time. The night before, at the close of the prayer service in the funeral home, I had encouraged everyone to come to the casket to pay their final respects to Carl. I suggested to them, if they wished, to touch the casket and leave their fingerprints there as a final, symbolic gift of the way in which Carl had touched our lives.

They were doing it again, now, in a deeply loving message that words simply could not convey.

And then, it was over.

We turned our backs and our attention to the living - helping Tracy make his way back to the limo, a path which seemed somehow longer and even more treacherous because he was now carrying the fullness of the reality of his loss.

There was something else he was taking from that graveside: an increased awareness of the shortness of his own days and the importance of the simple ceremonies we keep.

At one point, he had to stop and get his bearings. As the cold wind blew around us, he whispered to me, "You'll do the same for Joe and me, right?"

"Absolutely," I said. "When the time comes, which," I added, "will come sooner for me than for you if we don't get out of this cold." We shared a deep chuckle which seemed to have the desired effect of warming us and lightening the remaining 50 or so steps to the limo.

I've been haunted by the image of that graveside scene. It seems to me an icon of the role of parish ministry.

There, in the midst of the ice and snow, the harsh uncertainties of life, I stood as the sign and symbol of God's presence, the warmth of the Gospel message of Christ Jesus, and the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit.

There, between the grave and the insanity of war, I stood as a messenger of hope and peace.

There, in the face of death, I stood as a reminder of the promise of life eternal promised by God in Christ Jesus.

It is a humbling, awesome task - especially to be accorded the privilege of bringing all this to the family of a man I never knew. Which is the final icon, I think, of the church: to keep the simple ceremonies of dignity and worth, especially to those who think themselves unworthy because other parts of the church have told them so.

I'll be remembering this as we keep the simple ceremonies of the last Sunday in Advent and those we keep in celebration of the Nativity of our Lord. The lighting of candles in the progression of Advent. The blessing of the creche. The singing of 'Silent Night' on bended knee in a darkened church, holding slender, lit tapers left over from Easter.

It is important to remember why it was this Holy Child was born.

For this. For this.

22 comments:

Jim said...

Amen! For this.

Thank you for a wonderful moving account of a miraculous moment in your ministry.

FWIW
jimB

Brian R said...

It must be a wonderful blessing to know God is using you as His servant in this way. I live in a diocese where you, a woman, would be denied the priesthood. Thankfully a lovely but frustrated lady deacon was able to take my mother's farewell services although she was not allowed to give Mum her final communion. Her eulogy acknowledged Mum's acceptance of me but the Diocese would never have allowed me to become a priest and most parishes would prefer I was not a member. May God bless you in your work.

Paul said...

Thank you for sharing the simple, the true, and the right with us all.

I have found that being with people in the time of grief and offering the structure and consolation of dignified and hopeful rites is one of the most precious things I ever do.

David said...

dear Elizabeth+
what a living gift you are for the Church in these times
what a gift you've made us all by capturing it all so powerfully and sharing it with us all-
thank-you
David@Montreal

David said...

P.S.
Please tell Tracy and Joe they've got the love and prayers of a brother in Montreal
Thanks again Elizabeth+

David@Montreal

Kirstin said...

I come here sometimes; not daily. Paul (Buddhapalian) sent me. All I can say, is thank you.

JN1034 said...

Thank you for sharing this remarkable moment in your priesthood. This goes to show the Gospel isn't about books and laws, codes and weights, but about simply being there as we must for each other - in life, through death, into the Resurrection. As you remind us, we're all "lit tapers left over from Easter" waiting to be reignited by the Holy Spirit.

Juanuchis said...

I read this yesterday morning, and it brought tears to my eyes. I think I am going to print it and place it in my office where I can read it now and again.

Janis

Grandmère Mimi said...

Oh, Elizabeth! This is so beautiful. Thank you. Thank you for being "the messenger of hope and peace" for Tracy and the rest of the family. Thank you for writing this.

Bill said...

This is lovely! Thank you so much for something that reassures and reaffirms what I believe.

Lapinbizarre said...

A very beautiful, moving post. Thank you.

David said...

...especially to those who think themselves less than and unworthy because other parts of the church have told them so.

Amen, Mother. Amen.

I need to go dry my eyes now...

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Thank you, Elizabeth, for posting this. I am having my own semi-emotional Advent blowout this week (elderly "extended relative" with early dementia was AWOL for a day (home health aide came to the house and he was gone), and I had to be the "point guard" for the search from 90 miles away ("Didja look here? Didja call so-and-so?)

My story has a happy ending; as is usually the case, he got a ride to a "usual place he goes" during the day, simply forgot the home health aide was coming, had his cell phone volume too low.

But your story puts real meaning in my frustrating day! Thank you and prayers to all in your story.

Eileen said...

Beautiful Elizabeth!

God's beacon - the light in the dark - the reminder that we can be in the light sometime too.

Blessings up you and all of them.

susan s. said...

Thank you.

John-Julian Swanson, OJN said...

Elizabeth:

You have just defined Christ, the priesthood, the Church, and death in the most profound way, with the fewest and always right words.

Would you consider giving ++Rowan a short course on writing about truth?

Tracie the Red said...

Amazing stuff.

Doorman-Priest said...

You write beautifully. I could visualise it and feel it.

Very moving and very helpful to a novice who will be involved in his first funeral next week.

Thank you.

Tobias Haller said...

God bless you, even as you bless...

Diane said...

madpriest is right this time. this is beautiful. and I'm sure you wrote it.

BooCat said...

You were not only a blessing to Tracy and Joe and to Poppee's granddaughters, but to all of us with whom you shared this experience.

May God continue to bless you, Elizabeth.

Frair John said...

Amen, amen and amen.

Even at the Grave we make our song Alleluea.

This was simply one of the best things I have read in a long while.