Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Practice Homily for my Grandmother’s Funeral (“Momma Carol”)

I have many cherished memories of my childhood. One of those is of dad, with the constant support of mom, teaching my brothers and me how to pray. He would get home late at night from work and he would round us all up on one bed and make us take three deep breaths. We were always wound up and never went to bed when mom wanted us to. Then he would take a prayer card out of his shirt pocket and teach us the prayer line by line. Soon we developed a sort of regimen of prayer that I still pray to this day. Before we prayed any of the formal prayers that he taught us though, we always prayed for our family. We called dad's parents "Grandmommy and Pepaw" and, of course, as you all know, mom's parents were always "Momma Carol and Grandpa Frank." We would pray that God would bless "Grandmommy and Pepaw and all their families" and "Momma Carol and Grandpa Frank and all their families". I prayed that all through my childhood and I am grateful to be able to pray with all of you today this same prayer, but in a special way. Today we pray that God will bless all of our families, but especially our dear "Momma Carol."

The psalm that I read is a beautiful one, isn't it? It's one of my favorites: "I lift my eyes up to the hills, where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth" (Ps 121). I imagine, when I read that psalm, a man in a dark valley at night time, laid low by suffering and hardship. When it seems that all is lost he spends the last bit of energy he has on lifting his head a little bit. His eyes squint and peer in the distance toward the tops of the hills surrounding the valley. He hopes to see someone come over the hill, down into his valley, to save him. Where does his help come from? But then he sees not a person, but the sun, casting its first rays over the hills. "Of course," he thinks to himself, "the sun reminds me again, my help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth." He is reassured of the Lord's constant presence and help and is given the hope to persevere.

Momma Carol's help was always near to us too, wasn't it? I remember staying home sick from school and mom would drop me off at her house. I used to love to sit by her on the couch and watch Price is Right! And it seemed like even buttered toast tasted better when she made it! And who can forget those wonderful Thanksgiving dinners when she was still active; that constant stream of pumpkin pies. She helped us all in little ways like these, to be loved and appreciated and cared for. I remember her amazing sense of humor and biting wit but also the way that she gave us her motherly and grandmotherly care with such dignity and refinement.

Even when her M.S. made her weaker and weaker over many, many years, she always retained her dignity and refinement. For all the years she helped us, you all helped her in many various ways in return. Grandpa Frank was her constant companion and caregiver. And so many of you also took care of her with dedication and devotion, by tidying the house, fixing her hair, preparing meals, running errands, or by simply offering a silent prayer from a distance. You all should be proud of the way in which you returned the love that Momma Carol so generously gave you. When she was weak and looked up for help, you were the rays of the sun, sent by the Son of God, to be His Help to her. Certainly we all prayed that God would heal her, that one of the many remedies she tried would be successful. But God's help for her did not come in the form of a cure, God's Help was you.

Let us not underestimate the help that God gives us through the people that He brings into our lives. And let us make a conscious effort to be open to Him, so we can be always available to Him, to be used by Him to help someone else. Caring for Momma Carol was an instinct, a no-brainer, out of her love for you and your love for her, you just did it. But I don't think she would want that to stop, now that she has died.

One of the hidden blessings of this funeral for me has been that I have been able to meet, again, long-lost aunts, uncles, and cousins that I haven't seen since I was a little kid. Now that we are all together, how might we continue the love and care that we showed Momma Carol? How might we continue to extend the help of God, in the Name of the Lord?

I know that some of you helped her so often that your very lives were formed by the routine you kept: checking medicine at certain times, making meals at certain times, calling on the phone at certain times. And it can be painful and jarring for a day to all of a sudden come along in which these routines come to a screeching halt. "What am I going to do with myself now?" you might be thinking. "I should be checking on her right now. I should be visiting her right now." These loving and helpful gestures don't have to stop today. Look around you, look at how much of our family is here today. Who here could use a helpful reminder, help with cooking, an occasional phone call, or a visit? I think we call could. I think Momma Carol would want us to help each other in these ways.

But this is sort of daunting isn't it? I don't pretend this is easy. Helping Momma Carol wasn't easy. I know there were many hard days. And helping each other isn't easy, especially if there are disappointments or hurts in our pasts. But I find consolation in an old quote from St. Augustine, one of the early Church Fathers of Catholicism. He said, "The God who made you without you will not save you without you." Meaning, that we had nothing to do with our creation, we didn't choose our parents or our siblings or the situations in which we would be raised. God made us out of his own freedom and overflowing love. But when it comes to saving us, to introducing Himself into our lives, to giving us grace, to using us to help his sons and daughters, He will not force Himself upon us – we must accept Him and cooperate with Him. My point is that you could have never helped Momma Carol the way you did had you not believed in prayer and allowed God to use you and empower you with his grace. It's not all up to us and our skills and abilities. We can help each other, even if there are difficulties, even if we think we are ill-equipped to do so, if we open ourselves to God and let Him help us, with us, through us.

In a few minutes, after we have all gotten a chance to say our goodbyes, several of the grandsons and I will help to carry her to her final place of rest and peace. This little procession is an ancient symbol of helping our deceased loved ones on the journey to Christ. We will represent all of you as we help her in this special way. Let us continue to help her and each other with our prayers and good deeds. And at any time we are ever weakened, let us confidently lift our eyes up to the hills. Where does our help come from? Our help is in the Name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Practice Homily for My Brother’s Wedding

[Background: A Wedding homily for the marriage between my twin brother Nicholas Hardesty and his wife Amy who, providentially, were recently married on Oct 24, 2009. The presider and homilist was Bishop Malone at the Cathedral of the Diocese of Portland, ME where Amy is a parishioner and where the Bishop is a friend of her family. This homily is directed to my family who is half Presbyterian and half faithful Catholics and her family who are all faithful Catholics.]

First, I would like to thank His Excellency, Bishop Malone, for allowing me to preach at this wonderful occasion in his place. It is an honor to celebrate this wedding alongside of you Bishop and it is a great joy for me especially to be able to preach.

What can I say? In a sense I am lost for words, my twin brother Nick is getting married! I am closer to no one on the face of this earth than I am to him. And I have been blessed to be able to know Amy quite well through him. What could I possibly say on this occasion to either of them that hasn't already been said in many conversations or that they don't already know? Both are faithful Catholics, daily Mass-goers, devoted to and knowledgeable of the Catholic Church and her teachings, both with degrees in catechesis, in teaching the faith. Nonetheless, I am charged by the instructions of the marriage ritual to "show the importance of Christian marriage in the history of salvation and the duties and responsibility of the couple in caring for the holiness of their children" (Rite of Marriage, 6) and I must "emphasize the meaning of the sacrament and the obligations of marriage" (11). Besides, I am blessed to have all of you here as well, Amy's family from close by and my family from all the way in Kentucky… and "Priests are ministers of Christ's gospel to everyone" (9). But, perhaps it is Nick and Amy who will soon be instructing me, and us? In fact, I'm sure of it.

Look at the very Mass we have celebrated so far which I know Nick and Amy worked very hard to plan. At the beginning of the Mass, Amy and Nick processed together behind the cross and the candles, behind the Bishop and the other ministers, as a sign of their free and mutual self-giving to each other in the sacrament of matrimony and their desire to stay close to Christ and the Church in doing so. The beautiful Latin chant that you all heard as we processed in is what we call the Entrance Antiphon. It was a passage from the book of Tobit which in English said, "May the God of Israel join you together: and may He be with you, who was merciful to two only children: and now, O Lord, make them bless Thee more fully. Blessed are all they that fear the Lord, that walk in his ways" (Tobit 7:15, 8:19).

May the God of Israel join you together – this joining, this union of man and woman, of husband and wife is at the essence of marriage and is what Nick and Amy decided to focus on in their selection of readings for this Mass. In fact we have the rare occasion of having the same line repeated in all three readings: "a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body" (Gen 2:24; Eph 5:31; Mt 19:5).

From the very beginning, the same God who created human beings male and female, who differentiates their sexuality, in turn calls them to be one. By God's own will and design men and women are made differently but complimentary. They are made for each other, ordered toward each other, to compliment each other physically, spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically. They are meant to come together by a divine act of God and become one. Today that divine act is the sacrament of marriage. At last, in marriage, a husband has a "suitable partner", more suitable than all the rest of creation, more suitable than his job that may consume his life, or his plans and ambitions, or his money and possessions (or lack thereof!), or even his own friends and family. No one, no thing, other than the bride that God intends for him will he find suitable. Finally, she is someone he can relate to, whom he knows, whom he can love even as he loves himself. "This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh," Adam exclaimed. This deep attraction, designed by God himself, is so strong that a man and a women will even leave their own mother and father in order to cling to each other and become one. But this phenomenon, present from the very beginning of mankind, itsn't described in Genesis as a sort of quaint anecdote. The author was inspired by God to record it so that God's chosen people would read it and meditate on it for centuries would be prepared for its fulfillment. Because, you see, God was so pleased with this order that he followed it himself. God the Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Jesus Christ, left the side of the Father, so-to-speak, in order to become human, to be like us in all things but sin, to cling to us, to become one with us.

And so when this same line – about a man leaving his father and mother and clinging to his wife and the two becoming one body – is repeated in the second reading from St. Paul's Letter to the Ephesians, Nick and Amy are presenting to us a continual unfolding of this mystery. I must commend them for their courage in choosing this particular reading. It isn't often used because it challenges our modern sensibilities with phrases like "wives should be subordinate to their husbands" and "the husband is head of his wife". We are tempted to quickly react and jump to the defensive – "That is oppression to say that wives should be subordinate to their husbands!" But, if we let these phrases distract us, we can miss their true meaning and we can miss what is regarded as the richest treatment of marriage in all of Scripture.

Yes, it is true, St. Paul is instructing the Ephesians that wives should be subordinate to their husbands but always as his "suitable partner" not as in slavery or inferiority. Husbands who make too much of these passages should not forget what else is said, that they must love their wives even as Christ loved the Church, with the union that he had with her, with the lengths that he went for her. With all this talk of the subordination of wives it is actually husbands who have the harder job! For if they are to love as Christ loves then they must lay down their very lives for their bride, just as Jesus did.

Nick, you may not be called to physically lay down your life for Amy, as in taking a bullet for her or pushing her out of the way of a speeding car, but you must be willing, with God's help, to do them. Whatever is beneficial unto Amy's salvation, physical or spiritual, you must be willing to embrace. Only in this way will you love her as Jesus Christ does.

Amy, for your part, you must always be willing to nurture and accept this type of self-giving, self-sacrificing love from Nick and return it generously to him. Avoid all temptations to pride or status, to asserting yourself over him as if you don't need the love he is called by God to give to you. Rather, always be of service to this love. You as a woman are uniquely knowledgeable of love, in your natural maternal instincts and abilities, in your sensitivity and affection, in your generosity of feeling and empathy, in your creativity and warmth. In all of these, teach Nick how to love more and more. Call a new man out of him, a man not driven by lesser passions, darting too and fro at every sensation, a man who isn't cold and calculating, strong but unfeeling; a man who isn't afraid to give of himself, to sacrifice, to love. Nurture and coax a true love out of him. If you can do this you will find yourself loved and satisfied like you never have before. For this is what every man wants to do but ends up frustrating in so many wild and divergent things. Every man wants to love, to give himself, to be fruitful, to guide and protect, to be one with a woman. Nick and Amy, if you can cooperate with the grace of this sacrament, to allow your marriage to be the training ground of this desire, then you will truly mirror to the world the love that Christ has for the Church. This is what St. Paul saw in that age-old passage from Genesis. This is what the Church sees in your marriage today. This is how you can teach us what Christ's love is all about.

In St. Matthew's Gospel, when we hear this line for a third time, about a man leaving his father and mother to be joined to a wife and the two become one, we hear it in response to the question of divorce. "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?" When or Lord takes up this line Himself, he gives a categorical "No." And it is as if man in his very nature, marriage in its very essence, God's Love being what it is – all unite in one chorus against divorce. Marriage would not be marriage if it was open to divorce. In fact, the mutual, free, willful intention of Amy and Nick to live forever as one until death is crucial for what we are doing here to be valid. Without that firm conviction and covenant, we may as well all go home! But, I encourage you not to be afraid. The Church is not a haven for saints, but a hospital for sinners with Christ as the Divine Physician ready to heal us, through the Church, of all the wounds we have experienced through divorce or broken families. And as much as we rely on Nick and Amy to teach us through their union about Christ's love for us, they are relying on us to support and encourage them, to pass on to them the lessons we have learned from both happy and unhappy marriages.

Be assured too, Nick and Amy of my personal prayers and assistance at any time whatsoever. Although we are now going our separate ways Nick, we too will always have a bond, the bond of brothers, of twins, of friends that while not as deep as the bond of marriage, will, I pray, be as lasting. St. Gregory Nazianzen, a Father of the Church, describing the start of his friendship with St. Basil expresses this sentiment I wish to give you, for you to remember as you move forward now into your marriage:

We each had a great desire for knowledge, an ambition that is sometimes the cause of great envy among people; but neither of us felt any envy, and we each sought to emulate the other. The disputes we engaged in were not to establish which of us ranked first, ahead of the other, but to see who would first cede that priority to his friend; each of us considered the glory of the other as his own. It was as if one soul animated two bodies." (Navarre commentary on Sirach 22:1-26)