Offered for the Parish of Tazewell County at Saint Paul’s, Pekin during the Mass for Christian Burial of Mary Margaret Baxter, parishioner.
I once received an email from a woman who knew my wife through the graduate school Hannah attended. This woman wrote me seeking ideas about how to answer her children’s questions about their grandmother who had recently died. I believe her daughter was six years old and her son nine years old. This was not a church-going family, to say the least. In fact, I had heard both her and her husband say some pretty nasty things about the church over dinner conversation. They knew I was studying theology, and that did not matter.
The particular question the children had been asking is, “Where did Grandma go?” The mother told me that her children had said, “Grandma must be somewhere . . . where is she?” Despite the mother and her husband being avowed atheists, who even ridiculed Christian believers, she reached out to me in an act, I think, of great courage. I cannot speak to her motivations except the obvious concern she had for her children, who were dealing with death—with the grieving and confusion that so often comes with death—for the first time in their young lives. Because of our media culture—television, video games, movies, even regular stories—death I suspect was not a completely alien concept to these children. They were bright kids with intelligent parents. And this of course was the first time for the mother and father dealing with death from the perspective of a parent. Never had they experienced death—the grieving and confusion of it all—through the eyes of children under their care. We all may think we understand death and dying, and then it happens to someone close to us, and the reality of the strangeness of it all hits us in the face.
So I struggled about how to respond to this question from these particular persons. What I said was, “When a person dies, their body remains here on earth, whether buried or cremated. But who they are goes directly into the hearts of those who loved that person. So,” I continued in my email to the mother, “when you talk with your son and daughter, point to your heart and to theirs, and say, ‘Grandma is right here.’”
This apparently worked. The mother later wrote to thank me for these words. She said they were a great help with her children. I do not share this story to make myself out as a hero. The only hero is Jesus Christ. All I did was proclaim the truth. “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” And so our relationship with a person who dies does not end — our relationship with the person changes. The closer we are to Jesus, the closer we are to our loved ones, because our loved ones live in Jesus and live in his resurrection.
Elsewhere in John’s Gospel, Jesus says “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home in him.” Jesus and the Father make their home in our hearts. The heart in the biblical understanding is not only the seat of desires, emotions, thoughts, and plans — it is the primary arena in which we encounter God. God lives and moves and has his being in all places everywhere, and in all his creatures, because through him all things were made. Yet he lives and moves and has his being in a particularly concentrated and focused way in the hearts and lives of the Baptized, who because of baptism are members of his body. Because of Baptism, our body, says Saint Paul, is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in us. And so if the Triune God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — lives in us, lives in our hearts, then so do all the Angels, Archangels, all the company of heaven, all the Saints, and all the faithful departed, including our sister Mary.
To feel confused or perplexed, to grieve for the loss of loved ones, is as perfectly normal part of the process as death itself is a perfectly normal part of life. In our Gospel, Martha was grieving. She wanted Jesus to do something. Yet when we accept our confusion, rest in perplexity, allow sadness to happen as it must — to not fight it — when we proclaim with our hearts the truth of the Christian faith, even as we want Jesus to do something — only then can we realize that he already has, and the joy of the Christian faith can soften and expand our hearts even more.
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:14-19).
Cover image “Resurrection of Lazarus” by Duccio di Buoninsegna is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.