Homily for John Wright’s Funeral
Edward Foley, Capuchin
5 July 2010
It was not the e-mail I expected to receive. The only news I received about John by e-mail was from John ... most recently about him feeling good, getting stronger but not putting on weight; the upcoming family reunion that Becky had organized; and always that little sardonic touch, like his closing note at the end of the last e-mail noting that “my mental state is as normal as it ever was!”
It was not the e-mail I expected to receive. It was not the news I expected to hear. I certainly wasn’t expecting bad news. The last e-mails had been so filled with such good news: off the medication and lymphoma not active. If it was bad news, I expected it to be about a change in the white cells or the need to go back on the hellish medication. Instead it was unexpected news, “awful news” Mickey called it, of a heart attack and that he was gone.
In the aftermath of such unexpected news, such awful news, and the sad reality of the sudden death of husband and father, sibling and grandfather, colleague and friend, it is appropriate that we gather for this final sacred act in the presence of John’s body, in Eucharist, in sacrament, in liturgy. It is appropriate because the Eucharistic liturgy is where we, and unnamed multitudes before us, have come to face the unexpected. The shattering news of the death of the Lord, the sacrifice of the only begotten, the tragic and sudden end to the early life of Jesus, only to have that death, sacrifice, and awful news resolve into tales of resurrection for the Christ - and Christians who bear his name. But it is also appropriate that we bring this sudden, sad, and awful news to liturgy not only because liturgy is central to the life of the church, but also because it was central to John’s believing and knowing, working and ministering.
Symptomatic was Mickey’s comment yesterday that she doesn’t know where his rosary is, but she certainly knows where his breviary is, you saw it in his hands tonight. John had a passion for the liturgy and you know once he had a passion about something, look out ... he was in sales mode ... whether it was a product or an idea. He had an instinct for the church’s worship, a knack for knowing what was effective and what was not. A sixth sense for the liturgically authentic, sacramentally real, and a virtually flawless baloney detector [though he had a more vivid name for it] that could sniff out the sacramentally fraudulent, the liturgically shallow, the ministerially inauthentic in an instant, which is also about how long it took him to unload that detector on anyone within range ... to anyone who had ears to hear.
John also understood that liturgy was imperfect, something that became painfully clear during his doctoral work on the Prayer of the Faithful. It was in this very church, about a dozen years ago. He had planned a series of interviews with parishioners after Sunday Masses to discover what struck them most about the Prayer of the Faithful in the liturgy they just attended. To his horror, John discovered in the very first set of interviews, that the vast majority didn’t even know what the Prayer of the Faithful was, much less when it occurred or what it said. He thought his entire doctoral work had gone down the toilet and was very upset ... you remember how his voice got higher the more worked up he got? But eventually, after he calmed down, he discovered that he had unearthed an important piece of negative research: that sometimes in the liturgy of the church there are black holes, vacuums, dead zones, where grace does not abound, and angels do not rejoice.
John understood the liturgy of the church in all of its graces and all of its malpractice. He also understood the liturgy of life, the liturgy of the world: the daily crucifixions and resurrections; the gracious invitations and sometimes stingy responses; the signs of peace and acts of communion; the hymns and laments that took place at home, at work, on the road and around a table of friends. He understood the sacramentality of life: eucharist at a great restaurant; the chalice of life that he filled with a Bloody Mary; the baptism in a new job; the gifts of the earth and work of human hands daily offered in his own garden ... a most sacred place for John; the sacramentality of friendship, of parenting, of godparenting ...
John received all of the sacraments of the Church. Baptized a priest and ordained a priest, he chose to live the ministry of the baptized ... amazing enough, since for most of the baptized it is not a choice, but default mode, but for him it was a choice. But besides having received sacraments, John…as someone who made visible the invisible, who lived death and resurrection many times over, who knew the word of God and the word of People as a two edged sword in his own life…John was himself his own kind of sacrament as each of us are. For each of us makes visible in a unique way something of the mystery of God in Christ, something of the love of God in Christ, something of the dying and rising of God in Christ. So, in a sense we have lost a most beloved, imperfect, irascible, loving, irreplaceable sacrament, and soon his visible form, that outward sign of an invisible grace, will be gone from our sight.
And in the suddenness of his going and the suddenness of the loss, there are undoubtedly so many things that each of us, if we had a final chance, would have wanted to say to him one last time: to speak of our love, to seek some final piece of advice, to offer a word of gratitude or regret. Undoubtedly, there were also things we yearn to receive one last time from him: gifts that now seem beyond giving, a final kiss, a last upbeat e-mail or wry comment, a closing word of gratitude or regret.
But John has now been taken up into the mystery of God and we believe that what could have been his final words and gestures, gifts and absolutions, affirmations and regrets, are now resolved and reconciled in Christ. So in Christ, this night, Wisdom speaks in the first reading proclaiming that John is taken up with the Just, refined like gold in the furnace. And in the twinkling of an eye, purgation gives way to illumination and grace and mercy are his. Through St. Paul’s letter to the Church at Rome, we are assured that nothing separates John from the love of Christ, nor us from John who now dwells eternally in the love of Christ. And lastly, in a Gospel true to his own name, St. John consoles us that we need not be troubled. For husband and father, sibling, grandparent, and friend has gone to prepare a place for us in the eternal liturgy that he now celebrates, the same unending liturgy that one day awaits us all.
The readings offer eternal reassurances, divine affirmations, and a fulsome promise, but admittedly, for us mere mortals, it does not always fill hearts so broken. And I know, Becky, of your particular and poignant sorrow, your lament that the grand-twins…Owen and Nora…will now not know their maternal grandfather. Ironically, it was a lament sounded by the first disciples who wondered aloud how those who would come after would know the young Rabbi, Jesus, after his death, resurrection and ascension. And the simple truth is that epochs later, this Jesus is known because his followers…his children, his spiritual grand daughters and sons...spoke his words, lived his deeds, shared his love, died his death, and participate in his resurrection. So now you and Erik, Mickey, and the whole family, with us all, need to become new sacraments, making visible all the good and grace, passion and poetry of your father, now more veiled and hidden from the world.
Poet Mark Doty has an essay about the death of a friend, which captures something of this sacramental mission made visible in the death of our brother John. Doty writes, “I believe with all my heart that when the chariot came for him, green and gold and rose, a band of angels swung wide out over the great flanks of the sea, bearing him up over the path of light [that] the sun makes on the face of the waters. I believe my love is in the Jordan, which is deep and wide and welcoming, though it scours us oh so deeply. And when he gets to the other side, I know he will be dressed in robes of comfort and gladness, his forehead will be anointed with spices, and he will sing -- joyfully -- into the future, and back toward the darkness of this world. ”
Becky, whenever you or any of us speak or act the love you know your father had for you and Erik and the twins; whenever you or any of us speak or act the passion you know your father had for family and friends and the liturgy of the world; whenever you or any of us speak or act the sacrament, the grace your father had to offer us all in the liturgy of his life—know that it is your father in Christ, singing back toward whatever darkness there is in this world, so that Owen and Nora, and all God’s children, will live in a home more graced, a city more reconciled, a church more inviting, and a world more sacramental.
This promise of John, in unison with the whole communion of saints singing back to enlighten our darkness, is one made sure through the very God in Christ who now holds John securely to himself and whose Spirit is our abiding comfort in this time of grief. Singing through tears, beating in broken hearts, loving in our loss, and eternally promising that John can never be lost to us but is newly found…through Christ our Lord…and the Church says: Amen!