On the day of my Father’s funeral several years ago, among the many who came to the liturgy was Archbishop Flynn, who had known and befriended my parents. I was the presider and the preacher that day, but he asked before Mass if he could say a few words to the people after communion. (I wasn’t going to say no.) In the homily I made a point of saying that despite the language that we commonly use to speak of it, we never “lose” loved ones when they die. Those whom we love were never our personal possessions in the first place—they are, were, and always have belonged to God before all else, and God doesn’t “lose” things. I must say I thought it was a pretty good message on my part!
So the liturgy continued and after communion the Archbishop rose to speak. And the first words he had to say were addressed to me, for all to hear. He said that while he appreciated the theological truth of what I had mentioned earlier, there is yet a searing and undeniable sense of loss that comes at a moment of death, and he added that the felt loss not only never goes away, but at times it actually seems to grow more deep over the course of time.
And all I could think of at that moment was that these words were coming from the mouth of a man who was an only child and who had “lost” both of his parents before he was 12 years old. And he had kept profound faith through all of his life—a life that was then nearly 80 years old. For me it was a profound witness.
I think we were both speaking of something true and important that day, but I was talking about something rather abstract. He was talking about something deeply personal, something visceral and emotional. And that’s how it should be when we remember our deceased loved ones. Every person shares in resurrection promises, but there was literally no one like my Dad.
On this day and during this month when we honor our dead, we rightly do so with images and memories and stories, all of which are absolutely unique to them and the world. No we haven’t lost them in the sense of doom and obliteration. But with each and every one of our beloved, we have lost an irreplaceable face, a story, a life, a name. Which is why it is so important for us as a community, together, to call out the names of those who have been among us—one by one by one—who can never be replaced, and who can never call out love from us, for God and for others, in exactly the same way.
Some of them made us love because they were ancient and wise. Others because they were vulnerable or sick. Others because they were young, gave us so much, prayed so fervently, served so generously, forgave so needlessly, fought injustice and violence so persistently, endured suffering so graciously, cared for us so perfectly. There are no two identical stories of love here, but they are all stories of love, now lost. Archbishop Flynn was right, and we are right to miss them.
In today’s gospel of Mark, the story is all about love too—for God, for neighbor, for self. We hear the ancient command twice in Sacred Scripture today in fact, first in the reading from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, and then in the gospel again when Jesus quotes it for his audience.
Love the Lord your God, with all your being, and Love your neighbor as yourself
Anything apart from or other than that—anything—simply doesn’t matter. Not your prayers, not your devotions, not your good works, not your offerings, not your ministries, not your skills, not your sacraments… If it all doesn’t spring from and return to LOVE, then it’s all a side show.
But the concept of “love,” while true, is also abstract—like concept of “loss” at my Dad’s funeral. Nobody will disagree that love is good as an idea, but what does it look like, and how do we do it?
The answers to those questions are as many and as unique as the names and the stories of the loved ones who we honor here (today) (this month). There is no stock cookie-cutter way to make this command of Jesus real, because no two lives and no two circumstances are ever the same. Love always happens in countless specific ways.
So to know how best to love as Jesus has asked, we need to ask some very specific questions:
What is going on right now, here? Who needs healing? Abuse victims? Who is the subject of violence? The Jewish people of Pittsburg and elsewhere? Who is being demonized and threatened? The migrant caravan in Mexico? Who needs to be elected this coming Tuesday, and why? Who has been devastated by the recent loss of a loved one? Here at Pax?
These questions are not irrelevant to the gospel summons to love. They just make it much more specific, and therefore probably more inconvenient and more demanding for us.
The people whom we honor and remember with love and their deaths are those who have shown us what a powerful thing it is to make love something absolutely unique. And they teach us that it’s possible for us to do the same. And that it is necessary.