We now come to the end of this particular series of reflections on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy through the lens of the ordained ministries of priest and deacon. This final column of the series focuses appropriately enough on the corporal work of burying the dead and spiritual work of praying for the living and the dead.
We begin by recalling the beautiful words of Jesus to his bereaved and beloved friend, Martha of Bethany, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (Jn 11:25-27).
Burying the Dead. The book of Tobit gives a remarkable account of this corporal work of mercy. Tobit recounts that “in the days of Shalmaneser I performed many acts of charity to my kindred, those of my tribe. I would give my food to the hungry and my clothing to the naked; and if I saw the dead body of any of my people thrown out behind the wall of Nineveh, I would bury it. I also buried any whom King Sennacherib put to death when he came fleeing from Judea in those days of judgment that the king of heaven executed upon him because of his blasphemies. For in his anger he put to death many Israelites; but I would secretly remove the bodies and bury them. So when Sennacherib looked for them he could not find them” (Tb 1:16-20).
Informants go to the king and, under sentence of death, Tobit flees with his family and all of his property was confiscated. Clearly, to “bury the dead” for Tobit was quite a different experience from what we encounter today. Or is it?
From the earliest days of Christianity, burying the dead and caring for their resting places was a particular ministry of the deacon. Not unlike Tobit, those first deacons were performing more than mere ritual. Often the burial places of Christians — which frequently turned into shrines — were dangerous to the political status quo. To bury the dead was more than offering comfort to the bereaved and giving honor to the dead: it was a risky act that carried with it all the meaning of the Paschal mystery as the deceased followed Christ through death into eternal life. As we pray in the Preface for Masses for the Dead:
In him who rose from the dead, our hope of resurrection dawned. The sadness of death gives way to the bright promise of immortality. Lord, for your faithful people, life is changed, not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.
Praying for the living and the dead, therefore, brings us full circle as Christians acknowledge and proclaim proudly that death is a mere door, a door which Christ himself opened, a way into eternal life. As we pray and remember all who are in need, all who are still around us and all who have already passed through that doorway, we acknowledge the power of God, the saving Mystery of Christ, and the constant presence of the Holy Spirit.
As priests and deacons, we are blessed beyond measure to accompany so many as they navigate their own way of the Cross and enter into new life. This is the very moment of profound truth: Christ came, not only to show us how to live in this world, in simple anticipation of a better life to come, but rather how eternal life begins in the here and now. Life consists of many transitions as we move from childhood to adolescence, adulthood and maturity, and finally into eternal communion with the Triune God. All of this is a “sign of contradiction” to a world which proclaims death to be the ultimate end of all being. We proclaim that, in God, life is eternal.
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
DEACON DITEWIG, Ph.D., former executive director of the Secretariat for the Diaconate at the USCCB, now teaches and ministers in the Diocese of Monterey, Calif. He writes and consults extensively on the subject of the diaconate and contemporary ministry.