Worship After Death
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51).
Grief is perhaps the time a person most needs to worship God, but it is also the time when it becomes the most difficult to worship God. Both aspects of this tension are fairly obvious when considered carefully. We are most in need of worship during grief because our need is an eternal need. In grief, we battle against death. It is faith in God and Jesus’ victory over death that we long for, reach for, battle for with all our effort.
Yet, it takes great exertion and a conscious effort in the throes of grief to acknowledge and yield to God’s majesty and greatness. Haven’t we been humbled and humiliated enough when our sons and daughters have died? The simple logic that, “If God is great, majestic, powerful and loving, then why is my child dead?” plays in a constant loop challenging the assertion of God’s goodness. Nonetheless, it is worship which is the healing medicine for grief. It is worship in Spirit and Truth that will also prove that God is still good.
In the Book of Genesis, Chapter 22, Abraham is asked by God to sacrifice his only son Isaac as a test of Abraham’s obedience and faith in God. Isaac is Abraham’s only son, conceived in old age, and in all respects is a miracle. Abraham has been tried and tested by God over many years, and has been given the promise by God that God will make of him a mighty nation with descendants that out number the stars in the sky. Isaac is the first fruit of that promise, and now God is asking for this first fruit back as an act of worship. Keep in mind that human and animal sacrifices were not uncommon in the ancient world, so what Abraham was being asked would not have been something that had never been done before, as brutal as it seems.
As they journeyed up the mountain, Isaac began to wonder what was to be sacrificed. Abraham had not told him that Isaac was to be offered in worship to God. When asked what the sacrifice was, Abraham replied, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Genesis 22:8). The wood was prepared for the burnt offering, Isaac was laid on the constructed altar, and Abraham placed his knife at the throat of his son. At the last moment, an angel of the Lord cried out to Abraham stopping him from sacrificing Isaac, his only son. The angel said, “Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Genesis 22:12).
Grief demands from us that we also not withhold worship from God. Unlike Abraham, our children have already died from no fault or choice of our own. In another sense, we still have them to offer to God in our grief. Can we bring ourselves, as Abraham did, to not withhold from God this sacrifice of grief as an act of worship? This is the first step – willfully offering our grief, pain, suffering, anguish, and brokenness to God as a gift. But how is this to be done?
Worship is an act of justice because we give God the glory, honor and praise that are His due. In the Old Testament, sacrifices and oblations offered like Abraham sought to, or sacrifices offered in the temple were how people worshiped God. This is the definition and principal form of worship prior to Jesus. However, what was only partially revealed previously has been fully revealed in Jesus Christ. Therefore, Christian worship of God is primarily in relationship to the Son, and the worship that Jesus offered to the Father. For us to understand worship, we must understand how Jesus worshiped the Father and what perfect offering he gave.
There are many ways that we can meet Jesus and enter into his worship in our daily life. We can meet Jesus, the Word made Flesh, in Sacred Scripture. Encounters with Jesus also happen within the Church (cf. Matthew 18:20) when we gather together to pray, recite the psalms, and sing songs of praise to him that honor his Spirit working in us. He is also found in the poor and needy (Matthew 25:40). Jesus can even be encountered in creation, for all things were created by him and through him, and he is found in all things that exist, just as any effect can be found in its cause. However, Jesus’ presence is found most eminently in the Eucharist – the source and summit of our Catholic Faith. The Eucharist is the center of Christian worship.
The Eucharist is the Paschal Mystery. It is the perpetual memorial of the Last Supper, of Jesus’ Passion and death, and of his Resurrection. These three events taken together as a whole are the culmination of Jesus’ offering and sacrifice to the Father, and are what is offered every time Mass is said. What is present in the Eucharist is nothing less than the death and Resurrection of Jesus that paid the debt of humanity’s sin, conquered death, and released all of us from death’s enslavement. The Eucharist is Jesus’ worship to the Father.
Prior to Jesus, death completely cut off the living from the dead. Because of the Resurrection, death is no longer a definitive end, but has been changed into a step in the journey. Love can now cross through death.
According to Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), in the Eucharist:
“Jesus transforms death into the spiritual act of affirmation, into the act of self-sharing love; into the act of adoration which is offered to God, then from God is made available to men…The senselessness of death is given meaning; in which what is irrational is transformed and made rational and articulate; in which the destruction of love, which is what death means in itself, becomes in fact the means of verifying and establishing it, of its enduring constancy” (God is Near Us: The Eucharist, the Heart of Life, pp 29-30).
The Word and Only Son of the Father became flesh and was given the name Jesus, who transformed simple bread and wine into his flesh and blood so that we and all that we love could receive him and be united with him in God the Father. In the Eucharist, Jesus’ words, “That they may be one,” (John 17:22) come together. By entering the perfect worship of Jesus by receiving him in the Eucharist, we are assimilated into the divine and to all who are with God in heaven. The Eucharist places us in the presence of Jesus’ healing wounds, that we too may say, “My Lord and My God!” (cf. John 20:28) in spite of any doubts caused by death and grief. The presence of Jesus in the Eucharist clarifies our grief, consoles us in our pain, and places us in the company of our children, the angels, and the saints.
One final thing to note. The human person is an embodied spirit. We each exist as a union of both body and soul that is inseparable from the moment of conception until death. At death, the body and soul separate, leaving behind a corpse. What then of the soul? A human person’s soul needs a body, yet our loved ones’ bodies remain in the ground, are now ashes, or have fully decomposed.
The soul at death, by the mercy of God, goes to be with God in heaven and awaits the re-creation of the body at the end of time. The Eucharist is Jesus’ presence – his body, blood, soul and divinity – in the form of bread and wine. The Church is also called the body with Jesus as the head. Further, the Church is present not only on earth, but fully in glory in heaven as well. It is, therefore, Christ’s body, resurrected, redeemed and ascended into heaven, where all souls reside awaiting the formation of their resurrected bodies at the end of time when all things are made new.
Following this logic, it can be concluded that we meet our loved ones in the Eucharist (the body of Christ), where their souls worship in glory with those of us who await here on earth to be united with them in the Son (the Church – also the body of Christ). As the Sacrament of Unity, the body and blood of Our Lord keeps us in seamless union with those we love who have died. The pierced Heart of Our Lord has pierced through the previously impenetrable armor of death to grant open access in His name to those we thought were lost to us. The impassable chasm has been bridged. The impossible has been accomplished. The Eucharist is the gift that makes present for all time his Victory over Death!
In grief we have a unique moment, irreplaceable and never to be had again. We lose all that is valuable in our life except for Jesus. It is a pure offering because it is offered by a pure act of will based upon the absolute truth that God is good.
We become like what we worship. So to worship God in a time of grief and sorrow is to become like Him and to have His grace and peace in us. These are necessary to endure the difficulties of grief.
The death of a loved one is the ultimate test of our faith in the saving mystery of Jesus Christ. In gazing at the Eucharist in the anguish of loss, there is perhaps the purest, most unfiltered opportunity to make a confession of faith and to worship God. It is a humbled and broken spirit that is pleasing to God, not anything we can give him (cf. Psalm 51:15-17). Jesus offered the perfect and only true sacrifice to God on the cross, and he gave humanity perpetual access to this offering in the Eucharist by proclaiming himself the spotless lamb, the true Passover sacrifice. Worship while in the dark, empty and broken places of grief is true worship, a worship where God takes us into His Divine Love to console, shelter, and heal us. Eucharistic worship in grief mirrors most closely the offering Jesus gave to the Father on the cross, and Mary gave at the foot of the cross. Worship after a loved one’s death prepares our own souls to worship after death into eternal life!
“The person who has seen the Lamb—Christ on the Cross—knows that God has provided. The heavens are not opened, none of us has seen the “invisible mysteries of creation and the angelic choirs”. All we can see is—like Isaac—the Lamb, of whom the Apostle Peter says that he was destined before the foundation of the world (1 Pet 1:20). But this sight of the Lamb—the crucified Christ—is in fact our glimpse of heaven, of what God has eternally provided for us. In this Lamb we actually do glimpse heaven, and we see God’s gentleness, which is neither indifference nor weakness but power of the highest order. It is in this way, and only thus, that we see the mysteries of creation and catch a little of the song of the angels—indeed, we can try to join with them, somewhat, in singing the Alleluia of Easter Day. Since we see the Lamb, we can laugh and give thanks; we too see from him what worship is” (Behold the Pierced One, pp 117-118).
Reflect on the hymn, Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence. A beautiful performance of this is recorded by the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Apostles on their album Angels & Saints at Ephesus.
Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descended
Comes our homage to demand.
King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.
Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descended
From the realms of endless day,
that the powers of hell may vanish,
As the darkness clears away.
At His feet the six-winged seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Lord Most High!
Beauty extracts aspects of our humanity that are sometimes buried deep within us or that are prevented from being revealed in the common, ordinary and mundane. Beauty can also reconcile truth and goodness when we have been scandalized by them. This is especially important during grief, because truth and goodness are many times evasive. Allow the poetic beauty of this Eucharistic hymn reveal God’s presence and majesty to you. Place the details of your grief into the words and images that rise up in your soul. Listen to the hymn over again and align your heart and your grief with the beauty and truth of God – that he has given himself to us on the cross and in Eucharist for the salvation of all the world. In the secret place where you are alone with the Father, speak to Him of your loss and allow Him to speak hope, consolation and love in the way you need it most.