Last weekend our parish celebrated an ecclesiastical birthday of sorts* and I’d like to share some thoughts in the wake of that event. How did we commemorate this event, that is besides the obligatory brunch?
The answer: With a memorial service devoted to the memory of all members of our parish who have fallen asleep in the Lord since the founding of the parish.
In Alasdair McIntyre’s intellectual biography of the early and secular career of Edith Stein he noted that Ms Stein, the second woman in Germany to receive a doctorate working in Philosophy with Husserl (The doctorate in Europe is considerably more difficult in European collegial traditions). By her mid-teens she was an atheist and by birth a Jew. Yet in the horrors of the Great War (WWI) she came to Christianity (and in the horrors of the 2nd she came to Auschwitz). Mr McIntyre gives as a primary reason was her experience with those Christians around her and their reaction, as compared to herself and other non-Christians, to the death of those close to them. The young Ms Stein recognized a qualitative difference with how Christians view the loss of their loved ones.
When I had viewed the film An Unfinished Life, which released shortly after my return to Christianity, I was struck by the sense that Mr Redford’s portrayal of Mr Gilkyson represents the best that the non-believer can hope for in his remembrance and memory of his son’s death. And this portrayal suffers for comparison with the mixture of bitter joy and faith-filled sorrow at the loss of a loved one within the Christian community. For the unbeliever the pain cannot but be greater when there is not and cannot be Hope of a life to come.
Intellectually speaking, Jesus ontologically both Man and God by dying on the cross and being resurrected by the Father demonstrated and promised for us that we who are Baptised and believe should share in his resurrection. This we believe in our hearts by the work of His Spirit and confess by creed. Yet in our daily life and walks and ways our folk traditions shape our response to loss and grief more than our intellectually held conceptions of what transpires and is to come at and after death. This is not a one-way street however. Our traditions derive for many of us from the context of our parish/church faith community. The secular world however today with the power of the media and other influences often overwhelm our sense of community shaped by the cruciform community of the Church. Dostoevsky wrote of the notion of ontological freedom, in his case this was an unbreakable freedom that a person who holds his life as having no value might have. There is no threat, no duress to which you can subject such a person. Likewise a Christian should, truly, also hold the same ontological freedom. What material threat can bind you if you hold the key to eternal life? This last notion has implications for the ongoing discussions of Christian life in a largely secular democratic political community.
One question it seems worth asking of you and your faith: Can it in the face of death of those close to you, be an example strong enough to witness to those who don’t believe around you?
* — Specifically our parish (St. Luke) celebrated the feast day of our patron St. Luke.