Life in parish ministry, by its very nature, means that staff touches people at their most intimate and powerful moments—birth, marriage, death, and all of the moments in between when people most need not just the divine touch, but the divine touch mediated through flesh and blood.
This month at liturgy we have celebrated a baptism, a 50th wedding anniversary, the commissioning of our pastoral council, and the 50th anniversary of final vows for one of our sisters. Happy moments, one and all. We also buried a long-time parishioner, a moment of sadness but also a celebration of a long life lived well.
Earlier this week we experienced a peak moment of a very different kind. One of our parishioners who has been battling oral cancer for many years and many painful, difficult treatments and surgeries, informed us that the cancer is taking over her body and cannot be stopped. The prognosis is now terminal.
The overwhelming sorrow of this news is difficult to process—the impact on her husband and children, on her entire family for that matter; the loss of this gentle soul from our community; the many people who will mourn her passing. Death is always difficult, but untimely death is wrenching and incomprehensible. It takes our breath away.
I cannot imagine how it must feel to know that one’s remaining time on earth is numbered by days rather than years. My father passed away two weeks ago, and even though we had known that he was not going to live for a very long time, we were never given any kind of prognosis of how long it might be before dementia or COPD overcame him. That kind of limbo was hard because of its uncertainty. But I’m not sure that knowing isn’t harder.
We humans want to know. We want answers and explanations and reasonableness. Sometimes we simply cannot have it. On this side of the veil, we cannot know why a beautiful, gifted woman only gets a half a century or a young man only two decades. Death is the ultimate mystery. Other than one man who lived 2000 years ago, no one has ever come back through that portal. And so, we are left with questions.
For those of us in ministry, one of our tasks is to walk with our communities through these mystifying and profound moments. We seek to find God’s presence in the midst of all the extremes, knowing that in the person of Jesus we have a God who intimately understands and participated in the mixture of joy and pain that mortality brings us. We walk with the dying and the bereaved, the newborn and newly married. We seek to mediate the presence of God through sacraments and through our own humanity. In so doing, we cannot provide the ultimate answers but we can show that there is something more, something beyond.