The Church’s Christmas liturgy presents the birth of Jesus, the Saviour, as the light which pierces and dispels the deepest darkness.
Over the centuries “Christmas” has become a comprehensive word. It includes religious traditions which celebrate the mystery of God’s coming to live among human creatures: “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord”( Lk10:11-12 ). Christmas also includes all the secular traditions associated with the season.
With the Father’s gift of Jesus as a model, Christians also celebrate the mystery of giving and receiving both with and without Christian faith. Christmas incorporates numerous pre–Christians traditions concerning the winter solstice along with the legends of St. Nicolas that gives rise to the modern creation of Santa Claus.
A mixture, and even confusion, of the sacred and the secular characterizes the Christmas Season.
Most people are comfortable with this situation, as Silent Night sometimes alternates with Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
We can even find salvation stories buried in what appear, at first blush, to be purely secular creations.
We all know Rudolph’s story and how all of the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names. They never let poor Rudolf play in any reindeer games. But one day, all that was turned upside down. For on a foggy Christmas eve Santa came to say: Rudolf with your nose so bright, won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?
The story of Rudolf is modelled on the story of salvation and has even been called the “Reindeer Gospel” (Munachi Ezeogu).
To begin with, Rudolf was a misfit. Compared to the image of the ideal reindeer, we can say that something was definitely wrong with him. What is more, Rudolf could not help himself. All his fellow reindeer only made things worse for him. Only one person could help him, Santa, the messenger from heaven.
Similarly, St. Paul reminds us: “… all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Furthermore, we are not in a position to help ourselves. At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of the real Messenger from heaven. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14). He comes to free us from our predicament of sinfulness. For it is sin that mars and disfigures the beautiful image of God that we all are.
The heavenly Messenger has the ability to turn the defects and red noses of our tainted humanity into assets for the service of God. Jesus is this heavenly messenger.
Like Rudolf’s yes, we too are called at Christmas “not to be afraid” but to listen to what the Child Jesus asks of us: “For to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (Jn 1:12).
In 1975, Robert L. May, the creator of Rudolph the Red–Nosed Reindeer, in a column “Rudolph and I were something alike” wrote: Today children all over the world read and hear about a little deer who started out in life as a loser, just as I did. But they learn that when he gave himself for others, his handicap became the very means through which he achieved happiness (Gettysburg Times).
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!
☩ F. B. Henry
Bishop of Calgary
“If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord, so that alive or dead, we belong to the Lord.”
“We want to make sure you do not grieve like other people who have no hope.”
[1 Thessalonians 4:13]
At the death of a Christian, whose life of faith was begun in the waters of Baptism and strengthened at the Eucharistic table, the Church intercedes on behalf of the deceased because of its confident belief that death is not the end, nor does it break the bonds forged in life. The Church also ministers to the sorrowing and consoles them in the funeral rites with the comforting Word of God and the Sacrament of the Eucharist.
In every celebration for the dead, the Church attaches great importance to the reading of the Word of God. The biblical texts proclaim the story of God’s love and fidelity, reminding us of God’s design for the world in which suffering and death will relinquish their hold on all whom God has called his own. A careful selection and use of readings from Scripture will provide the family and the community with an opportunity to hear God speak to them in their needs, sorrows, fears and hopes.
The Catholic funeral rite is divided into several stations, or parts, each with its own purpose. For this reason we recommend following the complete structure and making use of each station.
I. The Vigil Service
At the vigil, the Christian community keeps watch with the family in prayer to the God of mercy and finds strength in Christ’s presence. The Vigil Service usually takes place during the period of visitation and viewing at the funeral home. It is a time to remember the life of the deceased and to commend him/her to God. In prayer we ask God to console us in our grief and give us strength to support one another.
The Vigil Service can take the form of a Service of the Word with readings from Sacred Scripture accompanied by reflection and prayers. The clergy and the funeral director can assist in planning such service.
It is most appropriate, when family and friends are gathered together for visitation, to offer time for recalling the life of the deceased. For this reason, eulogies, words of remembrance, or tributes are encouraged to be done at the funeral home during visitation or at the Vigil Service.
II. The Funeral Liturgy
The funeral liturgy is the central liturgical celebration of the Christian community for the deceased. When one of its members dies, the Church encourages the celebration of the funeral liturgy at a Mass. When Mass cannot be celebrated, a funeral liturgy outside Mass can be celebrated at the church or in the funeral home.
At the funeral liturgy, the Church gathers with the family and friends of the deceased to give praise and thanks to God for Christ’s victory over sin and death, to commend the deceased to God’s tender mercy and compassion, and to seek strength in the proclamation of the Paschal Mystery. The funeral liturgy, therefore, is an act of worship, and not merely an expression of grief.
III. Rite of Committal
(Burial or Interment)
The Rite of Committal, the conclusion of the funeral rite, is the final act of the community of faith in caring for the body of its deceased member. It should normally be celebrated at the place of committal, that is, beside the open grave or place of interment. In committing the body to its resting place, the community expresses the hope that, with all those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith, the deceased awaits the glory of the resurrection. The Rite of Committal is an expression of the communion that exists between the Church on earth and the Church in heaven: the deceased passes with the farewell prayers of the community of believers into the welcoming company of those who need faith no longer, but see God face-to-face.
The Church continues to prefer the practice of burying the bodies of the deceased. Nevertheless, cremation is not prohibited, unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine. When cremation of the body has been chosen, the ashes of the faithful must be laid to rest in a sacred place, that is, in a cemetery or, in certain cases, in a church or an area, which has been set aside for this purpose, and so dedicated by the bishop or his delegate.
Diocesan Policy re Eulogies
A brief homily based on the readings is always given after the gospel reading at the funeral liturgy but there is never a eulogy.
The homily should have a narrative style. At a funeral, there is storytelling to be done – a real person’s story – not on its own, but in relation to God. Attentive to the grief of those present, the homilist should also help the members of the assembly to understand the mystery of God’s love and the mystery of Jesus’ victorious death and resurrection were present in the life and death of the deceased and that these mysteries are active in their lives as well. Through the homily, members of the family and community should receive consolation and strength to face the death of one of their members with a hope nourished by the saving word of God.
A eulogy is a certain kind of rhetoric or public speaking, focused on the deceased person, with the intention of praising him or her. In this set oration there may be an implication that the praise is exaggerated or even untrue.
A homily, on the other hand, is to be a discourse within the context of a worship service which invites the assembly to consider and interpret its life and experience in light of a biblical text or texts which have been proclaimed.
What is at issue in the question of preaching at a funeral is clearly not that any mention of the person who has died or of the person’s attributes and accomplishments be avoided by the homilist. Rather, it is that such references be consistent with the spirit of the liturgy and find a proper context within the homily.
At the funeral of a Christian, the homily should be genuinely Eucharistic, a statement of praise and thanks to God. It should invite the person’s family and friends to simultaneously hold on the values and lessons of this person’s life, entrust the person’s final destiny into the hands of God, and remember the shortness and fragility of human life and of God’s invitation in Christ to live every moment fully and abundantly.
There are three approved contexts for a eulogy, words of remembrance, or tributes.
- The Vigil Service (Wake) of the deceased.
- At the grave-site or the funeral reception after the interment.
- In the Church prior to the liturgy, i.e. prior to reception of the body at the entrance to the Church.
The guidelines, issued by the Alberta and NWT Conference of Catholic Bishops, for the celebration of the sacraments with persons and families considering or opting for death by assisted suicide or euthanasia, can be seen on the diocesan website at www.calgarydiocese.ca under the Our Faith menu or call (403) 218-5500 for more information.
☩ F. B. Henry
Bishop of Calgary