A Priest at His Father's Funeral
The whole reason that we are here today, my brothers and sisters, is not simply because my dad died. You may think that’s why you are here, but there’s more to it. Trust me. The reason that we are all here is because Jesus Christ – who is true God and true Man – suffered, died and rose from the dead. Yet you may say, “Yeah, yeah. I know that your dad was super Catholic and that you are a priest and all, but I’m actually here because your dad died, regardless of his faith in Christ. He was a good guy and I want to pay my respects.” But I need to say, unequivocally, that my dad’s life wouldn’t make any sense apart from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Here’s the background: Before there was anything – plants, animals, humans, planets, atoms, molecules, whatever – there was God: Father, Son and Spirit – a communion of persons. God created the world and everything in it, and the best of his creation was the human race – male and female he created them. We humans were created in the image and likeness of God, which means that we are like God in a way nothing else in creation is. We have intellect (we can know), we have will (we can choose) and we have bodies, and our bodies matter, as we’ll see in a bit.
We know the story. Our first parents, rather than choosing to be in relationship, friendship, harmony with God, decided to break that friendship and see God as their competitor, no longer as their friend and Creator. We call that sin. So the rest of the Old Testament is an account of God trying to bring his people back in communion with him. In the fullness of time God the Father sent his Son to be born of a virgin named Mary. Now at this point you may say, “Yes, Father, we know. You’re talking about Christmas.” And you are right. But, here’s where I think we often get way too comfortable.
Unlike our Jewish brothers and sisters and our Muslim brothers and sisters who also believe in one God, Christians actually believe that God became a human being. Not an angel, but a human being. That means that God took on a human body like yours, yet remained God. How humbling. If you haven’t thought about how wild a teaching the Incarnation is, think about it. God, who is pure spirit, all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, decided to become like one of us. He became Incarnate. He took on flesh. And why did he do that? Because that original sin of our first parents separated us from God and brought about death. In Jesus, God takes on human flesh to bring us life, to bring us salvation, to bring us God! Here’s how St. Athanasius put it, “God became man so that man could become God.”
It gets better. It’s not only that God became a human being in the person of Jesus, but that he also went through every thing that we human beings go through. He was born of a woman; he was part of a family; he had a job as a carpenter; he had good friends; and he enjoyed being with people, especially around a table. But he also knew the tougher aspects of life. He knew what it was like to be tempted, mocked, denied, betrayed, beaten, scourged, left alone, to suffer, and to die. And remember, this is God we are talking about, who became one of us in all things but sin. In the person of Jesus Christ, God comes to us to experience everything we experience including death itself, which is why in most Catholic churches you will find a big old crucifix on the back wall of the church. It’s not because we are sick, demented or masochistic, but to remind us that Jesus is Emmanuel – God with us – and not only in the cradle of Bethlehem, but on the cross of Calvary as well.
So Jesus died, just like my dad died early Thursday morning. And if you have had loved ones who have died, know that Jesus died just as they did. God with us. He keeps himself from nothing. He enters all things human, even and especially death itself. But, three days later Jesus rose from the dead, never to die again. And you may say, “Yeah, I know the story, that’s Easter.” But, let’s really ponder the Resurrection for a moment. When someone dies, that’s it. That’s the end. You can remember them and tell nice stories, but up until the Resurrection of Jesus, there was no reason to believe that you’d actually ever see that person again. But Jesus rose from the dead, not as an angel or a pure spirit, but with his body – his glorified body. So it was like your body and mine, but different. In a sense, the resurrected body is MORE REAL than the bodies we have now. And Jesus told his disciples, with his own body, that if they follow him in death, that they will also follow him to eternal life. That’s the story. That’s why we’re here today. My dad believed in the Resurrection of the dead. He believed that Jesus conquered death and opened the gates to eternal life.
In the first reading today we heard from the First Book of Samuel. God calls Samuel but he’s confused. He thinks it’s Eli that’s calling him. But eventually he figures it out and tells God, “Speak, LORD, your servant in listening.” And Samuel became an “accredited prophet” of the LORD. In baptism, way back in 1924, Edward Michael Ference died with Christ and rose with him to new life in the waters of baptism at St. Wendelin Church. His body got wet, and he received his call to holiness, to follow Jesus – to live in Jesus and to allow Jesus to live in him. My dad’s conversion process didn’t all happened at once, but it did happen, and that was the day that it started.
In the Second Reading we heard from St. Paul. He starts out, “Consider your own calling, brothers and sisters.” Again, we hear ‘the call’. Often as Catholics, when we talk about ‘the call’ or ‘vocations’, we think of priests and religious, but that’s only half the story. Every Christian is called to be another Christ. Remember what St. Athanasius used to say, “God became man so that man could become God.” And God chose my dad, who by human standards was not wise, powerful, or of noble birth. (He was, after all, the son of Slovak peasants.) What did God want from my dad? To live in him. To Incarnate himself in him. To present Jesus to the world through the person of Eddie Ference.
How does that work? Here’s how. Just as God didn’t come to save us as an angel, but with a body, so too does God make some stuff of this world holy in order to make us more like him. He brings us into his family through water, consecrates us and heals us through oil, by the power of the Holy Spirit he turns bread and wine into his body and blood, takes a body like mine and calls me to be a priest, takes bodies like my mom’s and dad’s and says this is what my relationship with my people looks like in holy matrimony. It’s the sacramental life. God enters into our lives in very tangible ways. He is not distant. He is close. He is one of us. He is God with us, Emmanuel.
Some of you don’t know this, but many do – my dad was a daily Mass-goer up until about the last month of his life, when he could not longer get out of bed. Every morning he would enter in to the Paschal Mystery of Jesus, by calling to mind his sins, asking God for mercy, then listening to his Word, and eating his Body and drinking his Blood. (It’s also worth noting that he reflected daily on the Joyful, Sorrowful, Glorious and Luminous Mysteries of Christ’s life with his rosary.) What did all this do for my dad? It made him another Christ. In our Gospel we heard Jesus telling his disciples to be Salt and Light. Why? Because our fallen world is flat, flavorless, dark, and sad. Who is the light of the world? Jesus. How does he make his presence known in the world today? Through his community of disciples, which we call the church. My dad was part of that Church.
At the end of today’s Gospel we heard this, “Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” One of the dismissals at the end of Mass goes like this: “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.” You see what’s happening? The whole point of God becoming one of us in the person of Jesus Christ is so that we might become like him, so that when people see me, they actually see Jesus. God became a human being so that human beings might become God.
There are a lot of ways that my dad glorified God by his life, from his marriage, to his fatherhood, his military service, and I could go on and on. But I want to talk about two ways in particular that he glorified God by his life, because I think they are very important.
First, my dad was a construction worker – Local 17 – an elevator mechanic. You know what happens on constructions sites? Other than constructing, there are two things that are most common – bad language and degrading talk about women. In my forty years of life I only heard my dad swear once (in a joke, and it wasn’t even that bad) and I never heard him talk degradingly about women. He even cancelled his subscription to Sports Illustrated so that Adam and I wouldn’t be malformed by the swimsuit issue. So when my dad walked onto the construction site after going to daily mass, not cussing or not talking bad about women, who was walking on that construction site? Yep. Jesus. The Second Vatican Council said that it was the job of the laity to bring Jesus to parts of the world that only they could, to be salt and light – to be Jesus. My dad did that on the construction site. He brought Jesus there. Like Samuel he was an accredited prophet.
Second, at the heart of Christian life is the emptying of self. God so loved the world that he gave us his only Son, and Jesus so loved us that he gave his life away for us. There’s a nice Greek word for self-emptying, self-giving, self-donating love – kenosis. After my mom died, my dad lived for twelve years in his house on Thornton Drive as a legally blind man. My mom had the foresight to adapt the house to his poor vision, and he made a go of it, walking to Mass every day here at St. Charles and living a good independent life. But when his heart took a turn a couple years back, and when we realized that he needed twenty-four hour care, Adam and I moved him to Mt. Alverna Village, which is right next to Holy Family Home, where my mom spent the last year of her life. (The Dominicans took care of my mom and the Franciscans took care of my dad. Pretty cool.) It was not an easy transition. He had to let go of his home, independence, and even his money. Like Jesus, he emptied himself. But if you knew my dad, you would know that he did so joyfully. Sure, some days were tough, but he clung to his faith and lived to be salt and light to anyone he would meet, especially those who bathed him, changed him, fed him, and gave him his meds at Mt. Alverna. He showed Jesus to others in himself.
These last few weeks were pretty tough at Mt. Alverna. Adam and I talked about how hard it was to see the strongest man in our life become the weakest. But again, think of Jesus. He was a strong carpenter, but he suffered terribly and died a violent death as his mother looked on. When someone is suffering or dying, or both, our gut reaction may be to ignore it, run from it, or do something to stop it. But, because God became one of us in Jesus Christ, our suffering now has meaning. There’s a deep mystery to suffering. It’s not something you solve like a math problem or figure out like a puzzle. It’s a mystery, and when you enter into it with faith, it figures you out, it solves you. That mystery is Jesus Christ, and as I sat with my dad as he lay on his deathbed, which was his cross, I sat with sadness, but also with real hope. I had hope because a few days before my dad died he told me and Fr. Mark Riley that, “I am going to see Jesus, my salvation, and my wife, Joannie Bologna!” (Note that he got the order right.) He knew who he was and he knew whose he was.
One last thought and then we’ll continue on with our Mass. In 2009 my dad joined a plane full of World War II Veterans on an honor flight to Washington, DC to visit the WWII Memorial on the National Mall. He and bunch of the Greatest Generation landed at BWI, wearing the same light blue t-shirts, identifying them as WWII veterans. The folks at the airport made an announcement that the Veterans had just arrived, and the way my dad told the story, all through the airport, from the time the guys walked off the jetway until they got into their limo bus, people stood, clapped, saluted and cheered. My dad would get teary-eyed every time he told that story. I like that image, and I think it’s a good way to close this homily. My prayer for my dad is that he receives that same sort of greeting from the angels and saints in eternity, and that Jesus recognizes himself in my dad and that he burns away anything that has not yet being purged from him with his fiery love and that he welcomes him into the Promised Land.
My dad wasn’t perfect, but he was a disciple. May the same be said of you and of me when it’s our time for judgment.