Given at the Mass for bereaved parents in Westminster Cathedral on Saturday, 11th March 2017
In Lent we remember how Jesus on the cross cried out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’, words which express his anguish and the separation he experienced between himself and his Father. Until then he had felt close to God; now he seems far away.
A parent who has been bereaved may be able to identify with that sense of being abandoned: when what has happened does not make sense and the only feeling we have is that of unfairness or injustice.
Today, at this Mass, we remember our children who have died; we bring our pain and our questions. And at the same time we try to acknowledge the bigger plan which we cannot see, which includes God’s mercy and compassion.
There may be times when we imagine what our child would look like if he or she were living today, what they might have achieved. In the first reading, we hear of Samuel who matured and became a leader of Israel; we too may have had hopes for our children, especially if they died young; we wanted to see them grow to their full potential but this was interrupted. Though we also remember today death can intrude on our relationships, death can never interrupt the love God has for all his children.
Whether they died as infants, children, adolescents or adults, recently or decades ago, they still belong as a member of our family, included in our thoughts. They will forever be yours, whom you generated and you will always have a claim on them, although they are not with us.
Every child is unique and precious, not only to parents but to God. Just as some are born prematurely in this world, some are born prematurely into eternity. Within us there is a seed which can blossom only when we die; only then can we acquire our full potential.
Life itself is a gift which parents bestow with God’s help; the new life born of their love becomes their gift. There are times when we need the capacity to release that gift from our hands and allow it to pass safely into the arms of God. That movement is never easy, nor does it come naturally; it is the cross for us. It is then, like Job, that we try to understand that God’s plan is greater than ours; we do not see the whole picture: only through faith we have the assurance of the new life that God has prepared.
When scripture wishes to convey this love of God for us, it often uses the image of a parent speaking of the tenderness of a mother and the protection of a father. It is an image we can understand. That is what God is like, combining the strengths of a mother and father. In Isaiah, we read, ‘even though a mother forgets, I will never forget you’.
Today it is good to remember that Jesus too knew family life: he was entrusted to Mary and Joseph. He found a home with them until his human life ended, also prematurely in earthly terms. Mary, a bereaved mother, was with her son keeping him company on his deathbed of the cross. To be a bereaved parent is to experience a particular kind of pain. Within the body of Christ, the family of the Church, one has a right to expect support and understanding in times of such a loss and in the grief that follows.
It is in the context of Christ’s death, who knew all the trials and pain of family life, that we place our hopes for ourselves, for those dear to us, and for the future that is promised. Until that time in the future, we need the grace that God gives, that we may not lose hope, but may support each other in the faith and in the journey which ends when we see again those whom we love and have lost, though we keep in mind that they are not lost at all, but are safe.
St Paul wrote, ‘death, where is your victory; death, where is your sting’. We know of course that death has a sting. Without denying that, we remember that Christ has taken the poison out of the sting of death; those who have died are not lost.
May we always treasure our friendships and our families, and confidently give our children who are a gift to us back to God, the giver of every good gift, that they may be perfectly healed. In doing so, may we also find peace and healing for ourselves.