Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The last two weeks of November coincide happily with some beautiful reflections the Church offers us as the liturgical year winds to a close. The readings last weekend called our attention to the end of all things, the consummation of the world. We were reminded to be prepared for the end, for the coming in glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Nationally, we celebrated the great feast of Thanksgiving, a day on which we are invited to join in giving thanks to Almighty God for the blessings of the year. This act of giving thanks transcends race, gender, and creed – all who live in these United States are reminded to give thanks. Today, we come to the solemnity of Christ the King, a feast that reminds us once again of our final destiny and judgment, and that Jesus Christ, by means of the Paschal Mystery, has brought salvation to the world. We are asked: are we ready to meet our King when He comes?
With the close of this month, the traditional season of praying for the dead also draws to a close. As we look to Christ the King, let us reflect one final time on the funeral Mass and see how the Church, in the midst of grief, invites mourners to encounter Christ and place our hope in Him. As the body of the deceased is brought into the church, the priest greets the body and the mourners at the door. There, he sprinkles the casket with holy water, a reminder of baptism. In baptism we receive a new identity, become a new creation, and are brought into the life of the Church Universal. The holy water is a visible symbol of our faith. The casket is then draped in the funeral pall, typically a white cloth. This garment represents the white garment we were given on the day of our baptism, the day we became a new creation in Christ. The procession then moves forward and the casket is placed before the altar with the Paschal Candle burning. This candle, first blessed and lit at the Easter Vigil, stands not only as a reminder, again, of baptism, but also of the light of Christ that shines in the midst of darkness. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn. 1:5). In some cases, another Christian symbol might be placed on the casket.
The Scripture readings focus our attention on the promise of the Resurrection and new life. They exhort us who mourn to put our faith, hope, and trust in God and His mercy. All of the prayers are directed to asking for God’s merciful forgiveness to be given to the deceased, and for the grace of comfort to be poured out upon those who mourn. The altar is incensed at the offertory as we present to God the sacrifice of thanksgiving that Christ commands us to offer. “Let my prayer rise up before you like incense, the raising of my hands like an evening oblation” (Ps. 141:2). The preface and Eucharistic Prayer remind us that for those who believe, death is not the end, but a new beginning. Indeed, the various symbols of baptism remind us that our faith teaches us of the promise of new life extended to us by Jesus Christ. Throughout the funeral Mass, then, we are invited to renew our faith, to pray that the faith of the deceased would come to its fulfillment. After Communion, the priest incenses the body of the deceased while the In Paradisum is chanted. “May the angels lead you into paradise; may the martyrs come to welcome you and take you to the holy city, the new and eternal Jerusalem.” The incense used at this moment calls to mind the command of God to the Israelites to offer incense in the Meeting Tent before the Ark of the Covenant, “that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat…”(Lev. 16:12). Once more we ask God to be merciful to the deceased and to open the gates of Paradise to them.
The liturgical year guides us through the full range of spiritual experiences. We learn how we are to live the Christian life and are pointed toward our true hope and destiny, eternal union with Christ. The solemnity of Christ the King calls us to prepare to meet Him. The funeral Mass reminds us of all the lessons we learn throughout the year and calls us to place our faith and trust in the God of mercy, that those who have died may have the fulfillment of their hope, eternal life with Jesus Christ, the King of the Universe.