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Letter to Parishioners

The Catholic Faith in Slow Motion (no. 64)

  Death The Enemy, Death the Friend
          My father, Max L. Johnson, died last month in Cookville Tennessee, on May 26. In the days immediately before his death and after his funeral, although I was some eight hundred miles southwest of Cherry Hill, I was vividly aware that the people of my parish were nearby me and my family in prayer, sharing in our grief, and joyful with us in the Hope of Life Eternal. When Janet and I returned, your expressions of sympathy were visible in the large stack of mass intention cards on the rectory living room table. During my ten days away on retreat the stack swelled and continues to swell. Our personal acknowledgements of such kindness are finally on the way. But we want to express publicly our deep gratitude for all your words and gestures of Christian charity that have comforted and strengthened us.
          My father was a Protestant minister. At age 89 he was still active at the College Side Church of Christ in Cookville. Six months ago he asked that I preach at his funeral. Even if his son's having become a Catholic Priest had most certainly never been a part of his life-plan (!) this request did not come as a complete surprise. Tensions had long since subsided. There was, I believe, not only acceptance but hints and signs of understanding. There were no loose ends left untied between father and son. Here below, I will share with you a few fragments of the Funeral Homily.
. . . . .
. . . . We are troubled by death, because the loss prophesies our own death to come. As we bury a mother or a father, the distance between us and the grave is shortened. The path we walk seems to tilt ever more steeply toward the grave. . . . 
. . . . Death troubles us, and it ought to trouble us. Because we were not made for death; we are made for life! Death is ever a stranger to us. “God did not create death” says the book of Wisdom. Death is the enemy, says the Apostle Paul (1.Cor. 15:26). . . . . We meet death as the enemy. But Jesus has taught us to love the enemy (Matt. 5:44), to return good for evil and so (as the Apostle Paul wrote) to heap coals of fire upon the enemy's head (Rom. 12: 20). And as death strikes us on one cheek, we turn the other cheek, as our Lord commanded (Matt. 5:39).
. . . . Death troubles us, because we do not know the way beyond death. Our imaginations fail us as we try to envision what our brother Max is now experiencing. “As it is written: Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has the human heart conceived, what God has ready for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9. c.f. Isa 64:4). And so we cry out as St. Thomas cried out to Jesus: “Lord, we do not know the way” (John 14:5-6). In response to our cry, Jesus does not sit us down and set us straight about the after-life. He says rather: “I am the way, the truth, and the Life.” (John 14:6). Is this not all we need to know for the time being—that Jesus is the way to heaven, the truth of heaven, the life of heaven? Jesus is our heaven. And if Jesus were not there, heaven would not be heaven?
. . . . A final memory: we must not fail to cling to it (even if none of us here witnessed it): An August evening. Max was nine years old. The Station Camp Creek ran nearby the country church outside Gallitan, Tennessee. There,    confessing his faith in Jesus Christ, Max Lafayette Johnson was led down into the water and baptized in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Baptized into Christ—joined body, soul, and spirit to his Lord and    Savior—Who has always known him as we never could know him, who loved him as we could not love him, who saves him as we certainly cannot. Let us remember Max as Baptized. Let us commend him to Jesus, who is our heaven.

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