It is a sad fact that we humans tend to divide people into two groups – those we like or admire or care about in some way – and those we dismiss as bad and evil and beyond all care. For most of the people in the time of Jesus, that was the position of the woman in our Gospel today(John 8:1-11) caught in the act of adultery – often a woman who sold herself for this purpose. Jesus had already challenged the whole idea of who was good and who was bad, by saying that we are all sinners. But those out to get Jesus wanted to show him up to the people as someone actually condoning evil, and thus they ask him the question. Should she be condemned to death as the law at that time demanded and treated as an outcast, or not?
You might ask how this story takes us to the Work of Mercy I want us to think about today – our duty to bury the dead. The point is that we are called to bury the dead whoever they are, not just our own family or friends, but anyone, even those that society might think of as outcasts – as the woman taken in adultery had become. Remember how Mother Teresa began her work, by caring for those in Calcutta who were dying on the streets. Instead of being left to rot in the gutters as food for the vultures, she enabled them to die surrounded by the love of their fellow human beings, to die with dignity. Here in England, of course, we do that by paying tax to the State so that anyone who dies with no-one to pay for their funeral can still be buried with dignity; but Calcutta or Oxford, it is the same principle.
But actually our duty to the dead goes further than this. Our modern world in Britain tends to think that death is a private thing, just for family and close friends; but we Christians do not agree with that. For we believe we are all part of one human family, responsible for one another; and we see every death as an opportunity to pray for the one who has died. This will include getting to the Funeral if we can, or having a Mass said if we can’t, and sending a sympathy card either way. Of course we can’t apply this to everyone who dies, but we certainly ought to apply it to neighbours and work colleagues and not just limit it to family and close friends.
We believe as Christians, that we are responsible for one another, indeed another of the Works of mercy is : to pray for the living and the dead – all that we know of – not just some of them. So if we hear of a death on the TV or online, our first action must be… to pray… NOT to sigh and say “How sad”. We may do that too, but always our first response should be to pray, because every person who dies needs God’s mercy and love
But what are we praying for? Well we have the answer to that in our 2nd Reading. (Phil 3:8-14) Paul prays that he may “know Christ and the power of his resurrection” and “be given a place in him”. And that is what we want for everyone who dies; for none of us know Christ fully when we die, and some hardly know him at all; but we believe we will all meet him in death, and we want our prayers to help those who have died to accept fully the love Jesus has for them, the love he offered them when he went through death himself on the cross. We want our prayers to help them in death to accept fully the offer of life that Jesus gives them, so that they can pass through the process of death, which we call purgatory, to eternal life in him.
Please remember that a funeral should not be a private thing just because you are sad. It was the mistake I made for my mother. A Funeral is bound to be hard for those nearest to the one who has died, and so sometimes people want to suggest something very private to save them the pain, It is actually a mistake, the pain is there whatever kind of funeral takes place, and in the end the presence and prayers of all of us at the funeral actually sustain and support them in their grief. Music is important too, for though it often makes people cry, such tears also bring healing. And when those closest cannot sing because of their grief, our singing and praying lifts them up into the mercy and love of God.
Praying for the dead is not just a good thing to do, it is actually our Christian duty. It may bring back memories of our own grief, but that is a burden we should be prepared to bear because, just as people supported us when we were mourners, so now we must support them. For we are all one people, one family, and Jesus died for us all, for you and me, but also for the outcasts.