Remembering Heaven

A Time of Transition

Death is not extinguishing the light;
it is putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.
—Rabindranath Tagore

The airport is a fascinating place for me. People from all walks of life, each with their own story, are coming and going. There are wrenching moments of goodbye and joyful moments of hello. As a plane takes off and moves from sight, we know that families, friends and colleagues wait on the other end to welcome warmly the ones who have left. Departure is always hardest on those who remain behind.

Transition that results in change can leave us feeling uncomfortable, sad, afraid or even angry as we go through the adjustment process. In the month of November, many of us, especially in northern climates, experience profound change: The warm days of late summer give way to falling temperatures, there are fewer hours of daylight as darkness dominates, and the fullness of creation appears to die as it surrenders to rest.

Ordinary Time is nearing a conclusion with the Solemnity of All Saints, followed by All Souls Day, with the final crescendo on the feast of Christ the King. These extraordinary celebrations set the tone for deep reflection on the mystery of death and what lies beyond.

In Christian death, the journey that started in baptism is now complete. As we say goodbye to a loved one, we take the time to remember the gift they were to us in life. We place our trust in the words of the preface to the eucharistic prayer in the funeral liturgy: “Lord, for your faithful people, life is changed, not ended.”

By faithfully remembering a loved one, we continue the life and ministry of Christ in the midst of the community:

The participation of the community in the funeral rites is a sign of the compassionate presence of Christ, who embraced little children, wept at the death of a friend, and endured the pain and separation of death in order to render it powerless over those he loves. Christ still sorrows with those who sorrow and longs with them for the fulfillment of the Father’s plan in a new creation where tears and death will have no place. (Order of Christian Funerals, #239)

The feast of Christ the King on November 20 brings the liturgical year to an end. The scriptures for this day speak to us of a God who looks after and tends his sheep, who rescues them, pastures them and gives them rest, healing those who are injured and seeking out the lost (Ezek 34:11-12, 15-17). We would do well to remember this reading as we enter the Advent season. On November 27, the First Sunday of Advent, the Sacramentary that we have been using since Vatican II will be retired, and we will receive the new Roman Missal. As with any ending or death, there will be myriad reactions to the new missal, ranging anywhere from apathy to anger. This is an important moment in our church’s history, and we are called as leaders to shepherd our communities through the transition to the new translation — to remind them that no matter what may change in our worship lives, the same God is always with us, tending us and healing us.

Regardless of how each of us might feel about the change personally, we bear a great responsibility to the people we serve. It is our duty to learn the facts — the historical, theological and liturgical context of how we have arrived at this moment. We are entrusted with the task of helping to prepare the minds and hearts of our communities to receive this prayer. As with anything new, there will be mistakes and fumbles along the way. Embracing the challenge with love, openness, forgiveness, patience, and yes, even a sense of humor, will support the people God as we do this together, all part of one flock.

Parishes might mark this occasion with ritual. Throughout the month, find ways to honor the Sacramentary that has served us so well for over 40 years. It deserves our deep respect and gratitude. If you are planning to repose the Sacramentary in a place of honor within the worship space, start using that repository throughout the month of November. If you are planning to bury or burn the Sacramentary, you might want to do that within the context of evening prayer. Perhaps a simple blessing over the new Roman Missal might be appropriate as a call to worship just prior to the start of all the Masses on November 27.

Liturgy is the bridge between heaven and earth. We step out of time and space and into eternity. That does not change with new language. Going forward, we depend on the compassionate presence of Christ to guide us with love and hope as we enter more deeply into the Paschal Mystery.

This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue of Celebration. Barbara O’Neill holds a M.A in liturgical theology from LaSalle University in Philadelphia.
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