I’ve been ordained for three years now, and a priest for almost one year. In that time, I’ve conducted numerous ceremonies, but never before have I presided over a baptism in the morning and a funeral in the afternoon. That changed mid-July. Such a meeting of emotions, a pairing of beginning and conclusion, stirred in me a realization about the human condition, and what it says about all of us.
If we’re honest, humanity isn’t in a very good place right now. Wars, conflicts, Western societies as polarized as they’ve ever been for more than half-a-century, and a social media and political culture that despises moderation and forgiveness, and celebrates extremes and denunciations.
What, we may ask, has this got to with the Church? The answer is deeper and sharper than you might think: the hopes and aspirations of loving parents; the pain and loneliness of grieving children and partners; the living, breathing narrative of our existence, in all of its fragility and beauty.
The precious borders of our lives should open us up, revealing intimacy and vulnerability, leading us to question our actions and filter our emotions and feelings through a prism of goodness and kindness. The experience of such significant events, be it a baptism, a wedding, or a funeral, becomes a catalyst for our self-awareness.
People of faith have prayer at the centre of our lives, and in that act of prayer we should let go, allow, and accept. In a way, it’s a profound acquiescence, perhaps a reluctant acceptance that we may not know what is best and that there is one who is above and beyond us. The superb paradox for those of us who are Christian is that in defeat is victory, and in death there is life. So bitingly contrary to a world that increasingly celebrates wealth, power, and prestige, no matter what the cost.
For me, baptisms and funerals sing tunes of selflessness, the abandonment of the ego, and the gorgeous acknowledgement that we’re all— religious or not— part of a physical and a spiritual collective. The philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard said that we can “creep into God.” Not bad, that. Creep into God. Especially now, when the deity, or at least many of his followers, often have such a poor reputation. Take it slowly, take in gradually.
None of this is completely transparent or even obvious, but then God seldom does the transparent or the obvious. What the almighty does do is to remind us that we can be better and do better, and that in our smiles of welcome and tears of farewell we can help to make the world the place it could and ought to be.
What should form us isn’t the stock market but the market of generosity and care, not the speeches of politicians but the sacrifices of ordinary people, not the empty narcissism of reality television and show business flamboyance but the full and gritty grace of those who perform the thousand small miracles that keep optimism alive.
We have merely a few decades on earth to make a difference, and it doesn’t have to be one that is recorded in history books or make the news. I’ve met too many genuine saints, largely unknown beyond their family and community, to believe otherwise.
I was baptized as an adult, in my mid-20s, and in one of those strange turns of fate my grandfather died just two days later. He’d been ill for some time and I was with him in his final moments. This tough, hardened man who’d seen war, hardship, and poverty gave me a smile shortly before he closed his eyes for the last time. As he did so, he said through deep and strained breaths, “Mike, some things matter, some things always matter.”
He was right. Some things really do. Welcome to that precious baby, good night to the beloved deceased. You matter, and you always will. Thank God.