In the movie The Farewell, the central plot hinges on the question of an individual vs. communal approach to the burden of end of life care. One of the central characters has cancer, and the issue surrounding the family is whether the person with the disease should know or not. In the US, as the movie acknowledges, such duplicity would not be likely to happen, but in China, where the movie takes place, society often allows for such things because they believe the burden of suffering is to be carried by the family and friends rather than the sick or afflicted. I found that to be a fascinating concept because most of us have experienced the loss of someone due to cancer, and the question of death and mourning is a very present concern to all of us. I would recommend viewing the movie, if for nothing less than to understand the potential hardships of walking with someone who is about to die and with those that love them.
Our faith acknowledges that our time on earth is not all that there is, but rather that we are made for heaven and joining God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church declares: “The Christian funeral is a liturgical celebration of the Church. The ministry of the Church in this instance aims at expressing efficacious communion with the deceased, at the participation in that communion of the community gathered for the funeral, and at the proclamation of eternal life to the community (CCC 1684).” As Catholics, we believe that there is life after our life on earth. So the funeral and death itself serve as reminders of the Paschal Mystery and our hope for all—and in particular, those who have just died—to have eternal life in heaven with the Lord. The prayer spoken while receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday is a poignant reminder of this: “Remember you are dust and from dust, you shall return.” Time on earth is fleeting, but time in heaven is eternal.
As Catholics, we are part of a community of believers. We must not only accompany the one who is preparing to die, but also those who the deceased is leaving behind. This is not the responsibility solely of the priest or deacon presiding over the funeral rites, but rather a shared responsibility of all the church. The Catechism goes further to explain that funeral ceremonies have the Eucharistic Sacrifice as a critical component because: “It is by the Eucharist thus celebrated that the community of the faithful, especially the family of the deceased, learn to live in communion with the one who ‘has fallen asleep in the Lord,’ by communication in the Body of Christ of which he is a living member and, then, by praying for him and with him” (CCC, 1689).
It is essential as a community of faithful to also accompany those left behind who are grieving the loss of a loved one. This grief is normal and completely human, but it means that we need to accompany those grieving and serve as a living reminder of Christ’s presence in their lives. We are called to serve as witnesses to those we encounter daily, whether we know them well or not. As stated in the book the Art of Accompaniment: Theological, Spiritual, and Practical Elements of Building a More Relational Church: “Witnessing can be effective even if a deep, committed relationship is not yet formed…witnessing demonstrates an example of an integrated Christian life within the one who witnesses. … Witnesses are essential to the process of spiritual accompaniment because, ‘modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers it is because they are witnesses (Evangelii Nuntiandi)’ (Art of Accompaniment 16)” Times of suffering and hardship are especially profound moments for evangelization and witness. As a Church, we can offer hope and healing to those who are dying or grieving the loss of a loved one.
For more resources on Accompaniment, please click here.
I distinctly remember a few years ago when I looked a friend in the eyes over coffee just prior to Advent and said, “I’m so grateful that Advent is about to start - I’m ready for other people to be waiting, too.”
The reality is that we spend a lot of our lives waiting - waiting for the light to turn green, waiting for a relationship to be mended, or waiting for the Lord to reveal more of His plan to us. The waiting is inescapable - and yet it is so easy to feel like waiting equals failure. Our world would have us believe a lot of lies about waiting - mainly that waiting means that God isn’t faithful, that He has somehow forgotten us.
There have been so many times in my life where I have believed the lie that God is not faithful in the waiting - that the waiting is wasted. In a season of life that contains its fair share of waiting, I have had to remind myself again and again that He is in the waiting.
As Christians, we know there is such a thing as waiting well— as not only seeking God in the waiting, but knowing that God is seeking us in the waiting. I’m sure that the relief that I experienced in that conversation with a friend a few years ago speaks a lot of truth about the ache of our own hearts - an ache that is lived out during Advent.
The Church gives us the Advent season not only to prepare our hearts for the coming of our Lord at Christmas, but to also remind ourselves of the beauty in the waiting. The beauty of being a Christian is that we CAN hope in the waiting - we can hope in the waiting because we know Who we are waiting for. “Let us allow ourselves, then,” Pope Francis encourages, “to teach hope, to faithfully await the coming of the Lord, and whatever desert we might have in our life will become a flowering garden.”
This Advent, I am going to breathe another sigh of relief and of gratitude that others are waiting with me, but that we have a God worth waiting for. May we as a Church wait hopefully for the coming of our Lord together, knowing that He is in the waiting. And may the desert of our waiting reveal to us, as Pope Francis said, a flowering garden this Christmas.