Memorial mass for James Wells (21Jun 2010)
Is 25. 6a, 7-9; Ps 130; 1Th 4. 13-18; Mt 5. 1-12a
Homily of Fr. Paul Panaretos, S.J.
Blessing Despite Evidence
On behalf of Gesu Parish, I extend our prayers and heartfelt sympathy to you Leo, Jack and Eileen at the death of your brother, Jim. I extend those prayers and sympathy to all the Wells family members and all related to you. Not having Jim in your lives turns a new and difficult corner for you. You gather to open the door of our faith wider so that in his absence you can be more confident than your grief is sharp. Your confidence in our risen Messiah will help you grieve well. You will help each other experience Jim’s presence in real and new ways.
I offer a few words to console and strengthen you in your grief; to help you appreciate God’s astounding compassion by noticing Jesus’ victorious dying and rising were present in James Wells.1 I want to reflect briefly with you on the scriptures his family chose for his memorial mass.
Scripture is sensed strongly as autobiographical at turning points in our lives. I have found that to be especially so when we try to negotiate death and grieving. The life of the deceased often allows us to appreciate God’s word in more specific, more particular ways. While that is the wisest way to appreciate scripture—as a personal invitation from God to a live in transformed ways—humans do it best at turning points in life.
As I have learned a little about Jim from Leo, I dare to say that the Wells family experienced God’s presence in the face of adversity. Scripture narrates story after story and constantly counsels people to persevere in the face of adversities. Isaiah’s words rang out at a time when the people of the covenant suffered hammer blows of all kinds from Assyria, the power of that time. The prophet’s vocation was to keep before the people the presence of God who saves. The clouds of adversity easily darkened God’s saving presence, and they still do.
Adversity is measured differently by people. Persevering in the face of it anneals human personalities and helps them become more resilient. In a large family, whose parents struggled to make ends meet, getting by day by day surely seemed as burdensome as it could get. Then came loss of a job; sale of the home in University Heights to move closer to another job; World War II and older brother Tom’s service and daily fear for his life; then the death of Dad when Jim was 10.
I do not minimize at all the agony of those days. At the same time, as Leo can testify, they had that transforming, annealing power that made Jim’s life more resilient instead of brittle in the face of those and other adversities.
What are we to make of this, especially when adversity hardens the lives of so many and even hardens us at moments of our lives? Jesus echoed Isaiah: God has saved us! Jesus was clear that God saves us when the evidence seems opposed to God’s desire for people.
The Beatitudes announce the conditions for entering the kingdom Jesus’ proclaimed, the kingdom of heaven. Through them Jesus crisply stated that God is at work for us even when experience suggests otherwise. That makes the Beatitudes hard blessings because they are not rewards for achievement but for fidelity in uneasy and difficult circumstances. Humans are blessed not because they have accomplished God’s justice but because they faithfully hunger for it in deed and word. Humans are blessed not because they’ve overcome poverty or being denied or escaped tears, humility or persecution. Humans are blessed because they faithfully embrace them and allow them to change them even as they seek to better themselves and others.
Hard blessings are hard to swallow, even if Jesus offers them. Our difficulties distract us from wondering what allowed Jesus to pronounce them. Jesus had learned the lives of his family, how they were refugees when seeking to fulfill Caesar’s command just before his birth. Jesus had come to know his people and how they were dominated by foreign as well as their own religious authorities.
Jesus also had grown into an intimate relationship with God, whom Jesus called his dear father. All the while Jesus was reading, not words, but the heart of God and the hearts of people and placing them in the heart of his dear father. In other words, Jesus was reading people and telling them by his words and deeds God’s faithful desires for them: to share God’s life in every circumstance.
This is the meaning of God with us.2 God accompanies us, inviting us to share God’s life in every circumstance. Jim saw his young adult life parallel his childhood: loss of jobs; switching career paths—a big switch, I surmise, from engineering to business; all the while oppressed by how life would be possible, let alone what life would mean for him.
In the face of all of it, Leo reminded me that Jim “remained very determined and upbeat.” Leo, I think the order of the wording of your phrase is crucial. It’s probably easier for anyone to be “upbeat”; it requires much to be “determined.”
Determined is the way Jesus’ blessing us through his Beatitudes registers: faithfully hunger[ing] for God’s justice in deed and word; faithfully embracing poverty, rejection, tears, humiliation and persecution allows us to change, not on our own but with the gracious presence and help of God. God transforms our determination into rewards, ones that we never taste fully in our earthly life yet ones we know are more real than anything.
As we take consolation in God with us, even in slight and impartial ways, so we console one another day by day and not only in the face of death. Jim came to know in a personal way the movement we Catholics name dying and rising. Jesus, the first to die and rise to absolutely new and abundant life, makes it possible for us to discover his dynamic in our lives. Through it Jesus also gives us access to real hope, the hope that is poured into us by Jesus’ Spirit.
Perhaps this was the power—Jim’s experience of divine power—to offer his body to be used to promote life for others. His final wish seems to be a natural culmination of how he came to notice—adversities notwithstanding—that God accompanied him, even when evidence kept him from recognizing God saving him and when evidence sought to turn him from God.
In the face of suffering and of death the church recalls the immeasurable mercy of God. God knows what humans cannot: those who have left this world in [God’s] friendship.4 Our own experiences of God’s mercy encourage us to take heart that Jim enjoys God’s friendship and to console one another until we are reunited with him and all who have gone before us when Jesus returns in glory.
- Cf. Order of Christian Funerals, #27.
- Emmanuel. Matthew translated it for his community with these words (Matthew 1.23, citing Isaiah 7.14). God with us is no past event: Jesus incarnated God with us for all future disciples by his promise in Matthew 28.20.
- Eucharistic Prayer III.