The Body and the Rowan Tree


In Part XII of the novel Dr. Zhivago, the title character finds himself encamped in the Siberian wilderness with a detachment of troops.  The winter is coming on fast.  He observes this:

At the way out of the clearing and the forest, which was autumnally bare and could be seen through, as if the gates had been thrown open upon its emptiness, there grew a solitary, beautiful, rust-red-leafed rowan tree, the only one of the trees to keep its foliage. It grew on a mound above a low, hummocky bog, and reached right up into the sky, into the dark lead of the prewinter inclemency, the flatly widening corycombs of its head, brightly glowing berries.  Small winter birds, bullfinches and tomtits, with plumage bright as frosty dawns, settled on the rowan tree, slowly and selectively pecked the larger berries, and, thrusting up their little heads and stretching their necks, swallowed them with effort.

Some living intimacy was established between the birds and the tree. As if the rowan saw it all, resisted for a long time, then surrendered, taking pity on the little birds, yielded, unbuttoned herself, and gave them the breast, like a nurse to a baby.  ‘Well, what can I do with you? Go on, eat me, eat me. Feed yourselves.’ And she smiled.

Mother Earth, coursing with vigor and life, even in the Siberian winter.

What are we human beings made of?  It is in fact impossible for us to imagine ourselves, to conceive of ourselves at all, without including our earthen bodies in the picture.

Ephesians 6 offers a perfect case in point.  St. Paul is talking about purely spiritual matters. Fighting the devil, truth, righteousness, peace, faith.  And yet he cannot do so without painting an image of the human body, “armored” from head to toe.

The Apostolic See of Rome rarely intervenes to lay down laws regarding Christian burial. The last time the Vatican made a ruling in this area was over fifty years ago.  But the See of Peter has spoken definitively to us this month, to remind us of this crucial fact:

We believe in the resurrection of the body.  We believe that Mother Earth will give up her dead on the last day, and the bodies of the saints will stride forth with the fullness of life. God pours forth life to these earthen bodies of ours as surely as the rowan tree in Dr. Zhivago fed the winter birds.

We must bury our dead with this fact in the forefront of our minds.  As the instruction puts it: Burying the bodies of the deceased shows greater esteem for them than does cremation.

Or course God will raise the bodies of the dead who have been cremated, or whose bodies have been lost–He’s omnipotent; He can manage it.

But this is about us.  This is about us expressing what we believe about our bodies.  Our bodies are not instruments; they are not prisons; they are not husks or shells for our souls.  We are who we are: body and soul.  That’s why we lovingly lay the bodies of our beloved dead into the ground.  And patiently wait for the resurrection.

John-10 Casket Reflection

Last year, on the Friday before Good Friday, we discussed how the Father had consecrated Christ and sent Him into the world as one of us, in order to consecrate us. This year, let’s ask this question: Why did the Jews pick up stones to throw at Jesus? (This time, that is—i.e., at the end of John 10, the gospel reading for tomorrow’s Holy Mass.)

goodshepherdBecause the Lord had declared openly that the Father had consecrated Him to serve as the divine Shepherd. ‘My sheep hear My voice, and they attune their little ears to the authority of Absolute Truth.’

Today I concelebrated the funeral Mass of the mother of one of my best friends. Nothing can focus a person’s mind like the sight of a casket draped in a pall. The ideas that kick around in our minds—the imaginations, the memories, the thoughts about what I’m going to have for dinner: these items get separated from each other into two categories, like sheep separated from goats, while you prayerfully stare at a casket draped in a pall, sitting in front of the altar.

Which of these bouncing ping-pong balls in my mind harmonizes with the voice of Christ the divine Shepherd, the voice of Truth? And which do not?

God rest her soul. She rested her soul, during her earthly pilgrimage, entirely on the words of Christ. So the sight of her casket, draped in a pall, sitting in front of the altar: it gave us all great peace. The divine Shepherd leads His flock to a safe and blissful sheepfold; we can trust Him with our very lives.

In fact, when we have the opportunity to pray at the altar, with the casket of a holy woman, draped in a pall, before our eyes—at such moments, we realize this fact very clearly: We would be utter fools not to entrust our lives completely to Christ our Shepherd!

Because everything, in the end, comes down to such a moment. We are only going to live through so many NCAA tournaments. Then the great separation will occur. Our souls from our bodies. The sheep from the goats. The wheat from the chaff, when it comes to whatever we have filled our minds with.

If my mind is full of chaff at that moment, how dark will the darkness be, when I find my body encased in a casket, draped with a pall?

But: if we hearken to the words of the divinely consecrated Shepherd? Well, then there will be peace. The moment of genuine, complete, and utter fulfillment will have arrived. ‘Well done, faithful little sheep. Enter into joy.’

The Point of Christian Funerals

I think most Christians have forgotten the controversies that gave rise to Protestantism, when it first started. One of the problems had to do with prayers for the dead. The Protestant thinking went like this: since sometimes Church authority has encouraged people to pray and make sacrifices for the dead in a way that seems un-Christian–like asking for money for indulgences–therefore it’s best not to pray for the dead at all.

That controversy has passed into the mists of history. Prohibiting prayers for the dead clearly runs contrary to one of the deepest inclinations of the Christian spirit. But a deeper question, which lay underneath the controversy, still has to be faced, now more than ever: What exactly is the point of a Christian funeral?

Garofalo Ascension of Christ#1. Reason numero uno: We believe in the resurrection of the body. The Lord Jesus rose on the third day, in the body with which He had made His earthly pilgrimage, formed originally in the womb of the Virgin. Christ ascended into heaven bodily, flesh of our flesh. And He promised to come again, at which time all the dead will rise from their graves, just like He rose from His.

This is the Christian faith.

During the 20the century, some Christians decided to get fashionable and try to interpret the resurrection of the body, which we confess in our ancient Creed, in a ‘spiritual’ or ‘figurative’ sense. But, as St. Paul put it: that would make us the most pitiable of men. We believe in the promises of Christ more than we believe our own eyes—at least we should believe Christ’s promises more. The dead will rise. We rest in the earth after our bodily death, but not forever.

We have no choice, then, but to treat the bodies of our deceased loved ones with the most loving reverence. This flesh will course with life again. Arbitrarily to destroy the remains of our beloved dead—which is what pagans do—Christians do not do that. Certain things distinguish Christians from pagans—like loving the poor more than money, like having joy in the midst of suffering—and this one: We lavish love upon the bodies of our dead.

Continue reading “The Point of Christian Funerals”

When Someone with a Beautiful Smile Dies

The Lord Jesus came to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God. He came to raise our eyes to heaven, to lift us above petty conflicts, above the struggles of day-to-day life. He came to open up the ultimate reality: God loves us, provides for us. And He longs, above all, to welcome us into His embrace in heaven.

tombstone crossChrist exercised His power to cure diseases and handicaps. While He walked the earth, He showed the depths of the divine love by healing and helping people.

At the end of His pilgrimage, He conquered death. He died and rose again. By doing this, He showed His even-greater power of healing our mortality altogether. God took our mortal flesh to Himself in order to transform it into something other than a lump of clay that sooner or later runs out of steam. Christ has the infinite divine life to give. A day will come when all the dead will rise.

The miracles the Lord worked while He was on earth beckon us to have faith in His promises of heaven. And He Himself did everything necessary so that we could have the help we need to believe. In order for us to believe in heaven, we need grace from heaven. Jesus won that grace of faith for us by suffering and dying for us on the cross.

Now, all of these sublime realities confront us when we say goodbye to a beloved friend who has died. Recently, in Rocky Mount, Va., we lost a parishioner with an unforgettable smile. We cannot think that the Lord adorned the earth with that smile, only to remove it forever by death. No.

In Christ, the Almighty has smiled on us. We can, therefore, stand firm in the truth that we will see our loved ones who have died again. We say goodbye. But the goodbye is just for now, not forever. The Day of the Lord will come, and death will be no more.

Seek the Above

Think of what is above, not of what is on earth. (Colossians 3:2)

From time immemorial, man has conceived of three levels. 1) Here—the observable cosmos. 2) Up. 3) Down.

Here: the earth, the universe…day-by-day life with baseball games and back-to-school sales and train wrecks and summer movies. This level involves constant change, time passing, uncertainty, potential (that can be fulfilled or not), injustice lurking in every corner, fleeting pleasures, the possibility of a steak being good or bad, etc.

In the Name of the Father...
In the Name of the Father…
In other words, nothing on this level is sure, nothing absolutely permanent. Twinkies may or not be available in the future. It might rain tomorrow; it might not. This level has excitement. But Fate is fickle. It would be nice if the Redskins went to the playoffs this year. But they might not.

On the other hand, the other two levels—the upper and the lower—they are more stable. Their realities endure.

Continue reading “Seek the Above”

Bigger than Death

lio grave

Your ancestors ate manna in the desert, but they died. (John 6:49)

Seems a little rough to have so many explosions in the news in one week. We pray; we pray.

Better to pray and read the Word of God than to watch too much t.v. or spend too much time on the internet. Better to set a specific amount of time per day for “keeping up with the news,” and stick faithfully to that allotted amount of time as a maximum.

I mean, not to be morbid, but…

We pray. Of course, we pray for the repose of all the souls of the dead. For healing for all the sick and wounded in this world. For consolation for all the grieving and broken-hearted…

speed bump reaperThe fact is, though: the world is literally full of dead people. In every city or town there are numerous fields full of people’s moldering bones.

Why fret this week more than any other that, “we live in a violent world?”

Damn straight this world is violent: No one survives. Everyone winds up dead. Life on earth is fatal 100% of the time.

If I don’t die in an explosion, does that mean I am going to live forever?

Um, no. If I don’t die suddenly today, I will still be dead relatively soon anyway.

The Ethiopian asked Philip, regarding the Holy Scriptures:

About whom is this written? (Acts 8:34)

Good question, brother!

Who is the drama of salvation about? Who is the Bible about? Who is the life of Jesus about? Who lives the mysteries of quiet, humble, submissive death and eternal life in glory? Who has been made—not just for a short, frustrating, and fragile life punctuated by sessions on the couch—but for a noble, heroic life that looks the Grim Reaper squarely in the face and says, ‘Bring it on, little boy! I’m a child of God Almighty, and you are nothing but a little gnat in my face!’ Who was made to say this?

We were. Us. The Bible is about us. Christ lived for us. Heaven is for us.

Yes, the devil will have his day. May God have mercy and help us. May God comfort us and give us fortitude.

But, after all: Our ancestors have lived through tumultuous wars with explosions left and right every day. Our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world have to live that way now. Death comes. One way or the other, it comes.

But we are so much bigger than death. May God help us to see just how much bigger than death we really are.

Pleasing the Father

We seek happiness; we seek to please God. These two things go hand in hand.

baptism-holy-card1From our point-of-view: What can really give us peaceful delight? Only the friendship of God. And we know that to have that friendship, we must please Him, rather than displease Him. He is our almighty Father; we are not His equals, but His little children. The only peace, the only happiness I can really have comes with my confidence that the invisible God smiles on me, blesses me, takes pleasure in the fact that He has a child like me.

From His point-of-view: He needs nothing from us. His fatherhood has absolute strength and sovereignty. Human parents naturally rely on the love, affection, and reasonable obedience of their children—and become stricken if this love, affection, and obedience is not forthcoming.

But God has no needs like that. He has everything to give and nothing to lose. Out of His infinite goodness, He has made all creatures, that we might by our goodness give Him glory. What pleases Him? That we be happy—truly happy, peacefully happy, as His friends.

Okay. So: Why did Christ submit to baptism? Let’s try to understand it by considering the two “offices” which the Christ possesses.

Continue reading “Pleasing the Father”

Fell Sergeant, Strict in His Arrest

When your mom has a loving, goal-oriented, gusto-chasing sister who lives within walking distance, you wind up with an extra influence in your formative years.

The sisters.  Cindy on the right.
The sisters. Cindy on the right.
Dear reader, please pray for the repose of my dear aunt Cindy. She died this afternoon of cancer, two weeks shy of her 65th birthday.

She was big-time: Vice-President of a large publishing company. Moderator of the Presbyterian Church USA. Distinguished patron of the finest restaurants in Washington. And she kept quite a few charming cats in kibbles over the years, too.

My aunt Cindy taught me to yell “EEEEEE!!!!!” whenever Elvin Hayes took a jumpshot. She taught me how to remain calm during a round of miniature golf. She showed me the best way to drink your morning coffee.

She taught me the meaning of approximately 14,000 words. She risked everything and took a troubled teenage foster-son into her home, who grew up to become one of the most lovable professional skate-boarders I know.

Cindy taught me how to enjoy driving, how to appreciate Rehoboth Beach, how to include champagne in your Easter celebrations, and how to love your brothers and sisters in church (crusty as some of them might be).

She tried to teach me how to behave like a gracious gentleman with a sense of humor. (All my failures on that score must fall on my own head.)

Aunt to left, mom sitting, goofball smiling in St. Peter's Square
Aunt to left, mom sitting, goofball smiling in St. Peter’s Square, Nov. ’08

Cynthia Bolbach’s funeral will occur on Saturday at 1:00 p.m., at
First Presbyterian Church, Arlington, Va.
Requiescat in pace.

Please come and give me a hug after the service, if you can. Or give me a hug the next time you see me. Or give me a spiritual hug by saying some prayers for Cindy, for my mom and brother, and for me.

Happy 75th

Today Kirk White would have celebrated a big birthday.

(His brief candle went out at age 68. He sleeps now in his native sod, a mile from the US Capitol.)

Alas, poor KirkPearl Jam has the perfect song for this. Here’s the end of it:


And the road
The old man paved
The broken seams along the way
The rusted signs, left just for me

He was guiding me, love, his own way
Now the man of the hour
is taking his final bow
As the curtain comes down
I feel that this is just goodbye for now

(“Man of the Hour“)