The Mysteries of Faith

I have always enjoyed mysteries; from my first Agatha Christie novel at primary school to the Patricia Cornwells and Kathy Reichs of today, I like the pursuit of logical, and sometimes illogical, plotlines, and the slow unfolding of answers, that epitomise these writers’ craft. I guess it’s the solving of mystery I enjoy, the gathering of clues and patterns till the solution is clear. In my spiritual life too, I find deep joy in unfolding the meaning of Biblical texts, or the lives of saints, or the stories of today’s Christians. I actually get a kick out of discerning patterns of meaning that may well relate to my own spiritual journey, or that of others.

This passion for solving mysteries may well explain why I really enjoyed a funeral I attended recently.

I know “enjoy” is not a verb we usually apply to the experience of bereavement, though it has been my privilege over the years to preside over the services for many wonderful Christians whose lives have indeed been remembered with joy. This time, however, I did not know the 82 year old husband, father and grandfather, though I learned a lot about his work ethic, love of film, and Christian faith, as I listened to the tributes. I do know some of the family, in a professional context, and that was why I went to the service, in the chapel of a local Catholic High School on a rainy Saturday morning.

The priest leading the service is a man I have met a number of times, and know him to be a person of lively faith who knows how to have fun; I can see why he has been appointed the pastor of a school-based parish, where he has a lot of interaction with the students. During the service, which was an appropriate blend of farewell and hope, Father E. took time to explain the liturgy and symbolism, for the sake of the children and others not familiar with the Catholic faith. Although I have attended a number of Masses over the years, and on one study leave lived in a Catholic community for over two months, I still learned heaps!!

The first mystery Father E. unfolded was that of the notion of liturgy itself – although I don’t think he actually used that word. He reminded us that when we invite people for dinner, there is a ritual whereby things take place in a particular order. The ingredients of that order will change, according to the culture of the family, but in a European context there will be the invitation, the welcome, the drinks and nibbles, the formal table, the set courses, the conversation over coffee, and the farewell. It's just the same when the Lord is the Host, he said. We follow a ritual, and each course has a meaning and a place. From there he went on to introduce each stage of the liturgy – the “communal response to the sacred” – in the Roman Catholic community. (Whether we call it that or not, every religious tradition has a liturgy, even the Baptists!!)

I found this metaphor a really helpful way for people to feel included in every stage of the service, which remembered not only the departed, but the Lord he loved and served. I say this, because I did not go forward to receive the elements of bread and wine when others did. I know the Catholic theology of the Sacraments fairly well, and I understand that in most dioceses, non-Catholics who do not share that theology are requested not to stretch the priest’s obligation to hospitality. (I am told you will never be refused, but to go forward does put the celebrant in an awkward place). With that metaphor of the meal in mind, however, I found I still felt part of the ritual, since occasionally due to diet restrictions or them having eaten already, it can happen that some people in a family eat while others do not. I hope that others like me, still felt included by the grace of Christ in that community.

After the mass, we shared in a liturgy that focussed on the casket itself – open but covered with a lace cloth – and its very physical reminder of the person that was. The body was sprinkled with water - a reminder of his baptism – and incensed with the clouds of perfumed smoke, symbolising prayer and the presence of God. It was very “numinous” or mystical. But these symbols were carefully explained, in child-friendly language. Then Father E. turned our attention to the Christ Candle, standing at the head of the coffin. He told of the origins of the candle, in a piazza in Rome, where in ancient times the names of those victorious in battle would be inscribed on a stone pillar. Today, the victory won by Jesus Christ is engraved on the Paschal Candle, with a cross, and with Alpha and Omega, the names of the risen Christ. The candle is tall and white, evoking the symbol of the pillar of cloud and fire that led God’s ancient people on their journey from slavery to freedom. Five grains of incense are embedded as a reminder of the wounds of Christ, and the date of the current year speaks of God's real presence now.

All of these symbols were clearly explained, so that some of the mystery of such an unfamiliar (to many of us) service was unfolded. But in the end we were left with a greater mystery, that of the human experience of death and resurrection. How can it be that a man’s body lies in a casket, yet we proclaim in faith that he lives again? Where is that man now, that man whom we entrust to the hands of God, yet whose presence will be sensed in an ongoing way by those who loved him? And why are we comforted by the notion of a cloud of witnesses “cheering us on” as we continue life’s journey without them? These are mysteries indeed.

To chew over: What is your response to the use of symbols in worship? How can they enrich our sense of the numinous?

Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,
Pilgrim through this barren land.
I am weak, but Thou art mighty;
Hold me with Thy powerful hand.
Bread of Heaven, Bread of Heaven,
Feed me till I want no more;
Feed me till I want no more.

Open now the crystal fountain,
Whence the healing stream doth flow;
Let the fire and cloudy pillar
Lead me all my journey through.
Strong Deliverer, strong Deliverer,
Be Thou still my Strength and Shield;
Be Thou still my Strength and Shield.

When I tread the verge of Jordan,
Bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of deaths, and hell’s destruction,
Land me safe on Canaan’s side.
Songs of praises, songs of praises,
I will ever give to Thee;
I will ever give to Thee.

William Williams.