Dear friends in Christ:
In the revision of the liturgy after Vatican II (1962-65), one of the more beautiful revisions were the Funerals Rites. The funerals rites of the Council of Trent, what we call today the Extraordinary Form or Tridentine Rite, were beautiful and meaningful, but the revised liturgy has its own beauty and theological richness. One of the extraordinary aspects and characteristics of our current funeral rites is the ritual connection to the Rites of Baptism. While the funeral rite does provide a number of options, there is a strong resonance between the rituals of these two pivotal life moments.
Theologically baptism is a spiritual rebirth and the death of a Christian is birth into eternal life. In fact, for the early saints and martyrs, the day of death, what we call today their “feast day” was called Dies Natalis, their birthday!
Let’s look at some of the similarities.
The first liturgical action is that the loved one is brought to the church by their family. There they are greeted by the church’s minister wearing white vestments; white being the color of new life, rejoicing and the color worn for baptisms. Present is the paschal (Easter) candle, the sign of Christ’s conquering the darkness of sin and death. These actions and symbols are present at both baptisms and funerals.
After the casket containing the body of the deceased Christian is brought into the church, it is sprinkled with holy water and is clothed with a white pall recalling their baptism in which they were reborn in the Spirit, washed clean of sin and clothed in Christ and his grace. At baptism the faithful wear a beautiful “christening gown” which is the symbol of the dignity and purity as a child of God. At the funeral the body is clothed as well in a white garment.
The body literally moves through the stages of a journey from the home (funeral home) to the doors of the church, to the altar and then to the place of rest where the bodies await resurrection. This journey mimics the processions in the baptismal rite and the journey of faith which is the journey of our lives. As the body is taken to the altar for the mass, the Scriptures are read and the Eucharist is offered. Here we receive spiritual wisdom and nourishment, the Word of God and the Body and Blood of Christ. Notice how the ordinary actions of washing, clothing, learning and eating are transformed in the funeral rite to ritually symbolize what takes place in supernatural and spiritual journey. God purifies us, protects us, teaches us and feeds us! All these important actions, these stages of our lives, are recalled ritually in the Funeral Mass. Even more important than ritually rich symbolism and significance is the grace that is given. We offer for the soul of the deceased and for ourselves the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the greatest treasure we have on this earth. We spiritually assist the dead with our prayers and by our prayers we ourselves receive actual grace and in the sacrament, sanctifying grace.
Throughout all of our Catholic funeral rites, we proclaim the truth of our faith that we are all made by God and for God and that our ultimate destination in this life is life in the world to come. While acknowledging present sadness and past joys, our Catholic funeral rites ultimately proclaim in word and action that we are made for eternal happiness and eternal life with God, our Father, Jesus Christ, His only Son and the Holy Spirit.
In Pace Christi,
Fr. Troy Gately