May 29, 2014 Feast of the Ascension
I am rarely at a loss for words, but today is different. It’s hard to find the words to write about a topic that none of us like to think about or talk about: death.
I went to bed with a heavy heart on Memorial Day after learning that a New Orleans family I’m remotely acquainted with had lost their nine year old son Joseph in a boating accident earlier that day. A family outing of tubing on the Wolf River turned deadly when a tube being pulled behind a boat hit a tree, injuring the child fatally from head and neck trauma. A sibling riding beside his brother on the tube; their father driving the boat. One can hardly imagine a more tragic set of circumstances.
“Lord, please have mercy on Joseph’s family and give them comfort and strength,” my husband Mark and I prayed as we grieved with a family we have never met over their heartrending loss. Our prayers echoed the prayers we said a year ago last Memorial Day, when we got the news that a friend had lost his 21 year old son Jacques to a drowning accident while tubing on the Amite River. For months we offered prayers for Jacques’ family, imagining their searing pain over the loss of their beloved son.
When I woke up to pray on Tuesday morning, the first words my eyes fell upon in the day’s prayers were: “Christ lives as ruler over life and death; come, let us adore, alleluia!” I continued on to the Gospel, which read: “Jesus said to his disciples: Now I am going to the one who sent me…grief has filled your hearts” (John 16:5-7).
All of us have known the grief of death at some time in our lives. If we have not, it’s a certainty that we will. I have personally known the grief of death intimately, having watched my spouse, my parents and a best friend bury children to untimely, heartbreaking deaths. I then walked through the valley of death with my husband, losing him after 24 years of marriage to a massive heart attack. That event led me to a widows group, where I sat with “weeping widows” for three years, hearing shocking new stories of tragedy regularly. Sadly, our little group grew and grew, and my heart and tears continually expanded as I entered into the agony of other sorrowful women.
I know the anguish of death; and I know, too, the truth of Jesus’ words—the ones sandwiched between “I am going” and “grief.” “Not one of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’” Jesus said to His disciples, summing up in four little words the Christian virtue of hope (John 16:5, italics added).
Hope is the theological virtue infused into our souls at Baptism that enables us to believe that “heaven is for real,” that it’s our true home, and that we will meet God and our loved ones there some day. Hope convinces us that we are aliens on planet Earth, that we’re destined for something more, and that there will come a time where there will be no more death or sorrow, weeping or funerals—or accidents that pull the ground right out from under our feet. Hope enables us to place our trust in Christ's promises—“relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1817).
In and of ourselves, we would never have the strength to bury a loved one, most especially, a child. But with God’s grace, we can and must have hope in the face of such loss, trusting that death does not have the final word, and resting assured that God’s presence and power will carry us until we can stand upright again. And indeed, it does. I have seen it happen time and time again these past few years, where I’ve encountered too much grief to measure. Hope has carried us through, individually and corporately. It has kept us from discouragement; it has sustained us during times of abandonment; it has opened our hearts in expectation of eternal beatitude (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1818). Without such hope, we would simply crumble under the weight of the reality of death, and death itself would be an absurd cruelty.
Today is the Feast of the Ascension, the day young Joseph will be buried. We remember that Our Lord’s tomb is empty and that He has gone home to the one who sent Him. To heaven, where He--and Joseph--await our arrival. That’s why we can heartily pray: “Christ lives as ruler over life and death; come, let us adore, alleluia!”
Judy Landrieu Klein holds a Masters Degree in Theological Studies from the University of Dallas and carried out post-graduate doctoral studies at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum in Rome. She writes from Mandeville LA and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.