Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Birth, Death and In Between

I am going to a funeral tomorrow. I am going to a baby shower on Saturday. And on Sunday, I have been invited to a wedding. I’m not going to the wedding. But still, having a funeral, a baby shower and a wedding all in the same week makes you think about life, death and in between.

When I was researching an essay on the sacraments last year, I came across something that said that in the Catholic Church, the sacraments (of which there are seven) cover all the important life milestones. There is baptism for birth. Anointing of the Sick (or Last Rites or Extreme Unction) for Death. And marriage itself in a sacrament.

I couldn’t explore this idea in my essay, because it would have been off-topic, but I remember being quite struck by this idea that the Church was there at the beginning of life and at the end of it, and at the important moments in between.

On one level it was reassuring. There was this continuity, a thread between birth and death, linking those important moments. Not just our own birth, death and marriage. But the birth and marriage of your children and grandchildren. During all those times, the Church was there.

It was also reassuring because there was at least one constant. So many things happen in a life, so many things change. People you thought would be there forever suddenly aren’t there. The ones who were there at your birth will often have died before you die. Some faces will be gone. And new ones will be in their place. And yet the Church is still there. It’s the one face that hasn’t changed.

Yet the Church doesn’t simply show its face when it administers the sacraments. In a way, it is the face of God to the world. I don’t want to get into too much discussion about the sacraments. Not least, because I’m likely to say something wrong. But it is worth noting that the sacraments are a visible means of conveying visible grace. When the sacraments are administered, we see a visible sign of God’s presence in the world. God is there at the beginning. And God is there at the end, whether we receive the sacraments or not. But the sacraments remind us of God’s presence. Though of course, they do so much more than that. Because they actually confer the grace which they signify. And that is reassuring. To know that God’s grace is there at the beginning and there at the end, and there for many occasions in between.

But I think what most struck me is not that the Church was there at the beginning of life and at the end of life, but it was there before the beginning of life and after the end of life. One lifetime is really only a tiny blip in the history of the Church. And the Church is not just a thread, connecting the start of one’s life to the end of it, it is a thread that connects the baptism of the first Christians to the Last Rites of the last Christians. That’s quite mind-blowing, when you think about it.

In the end, this post has seemed to be more about the longevity of the church than about life and death. But maybe that’s what life and death boils down to, in the end. It is so short, compared to everything else. My friend who just died had a fairly long life. I’m not sure exactly how old she was, but she had her 80th one or two years ago. But there were many lifetimes lived before she was born and many lifetimes to be lived afterwards.

And now there’s a new little life, just getting ready to be born. Who knows what things he or she will see and do? Who knows how the world will have changed by the time he or she dies? But the Church will be there at the beginning and the Church will be there at the end. Maybe not in the form of the sacraments to this particular person. It’s impossible to know for sure what will happen there. But the Church will at least exist and be available to administer the sacraments. And God will be there. He’s there now, forming this baby in the womb. He will be there at its birth. He will be there at its death. And He will be there after death as well.

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