I shared in a horrible experience today as I gathered with a family in the old parish cemetery to bury the body of an infant child. Morris Vaillancourt, the son of Stephanie Morris and Raymond Vaillancourt, who died a few short hours after his premature birth in Ottawa earlier this week, was laid to rest. It’s not the first time I’ve had to do this as a priest. Sadly nor will it be the last. But every time I gather with a family in such sad circumstances, I can’t help but note that the grief of a parent at their child’s grave has a darker, deeper, more forlorn quality to it than it does for others. When one is cheated out of all the anticipated joys and wonders of raising a child, being given only a few short hours of life in place of the hoped-for years together, then a cemetery is about the coldest spot on the planet that one could stand, no matter the season or weather.
The challenge earlier on in my priesthood was to know what words of comfort I could offer on such a sad occasion. Phrases like ‘Time heals all wounds’ or ‘Everything happens for reason’ quickly revealed themselves for what they are: empty platitudes that actually bring more pain than comfort to grieving parents when their child dies. Indeed any sentence that begins with the words ‘At least…’ (as in ‘At least they didn’t suffer’, or ‘At least they were spared the trials of life’, or worst of all, ‘At least you can still have more children’) should never be said to any bereaved parent anywhere or at any time. Nothing that rings hollow like such bromides can ever offer real comfort at such a time of loss and pain. Only faith… faith in God… faith in Christ’s victory over death… only this faith has the power to comfort parents following the death of a child of any age or stage of life.
This is the challenge posed to all of us in today’s readings for the 2nd Sunday of Advent. The 1st reading from the prophet Isaiah calls us to proclaim the coming of the God of creation as the true comfort of any people in times of trouble, pain, and suffering. A god capable of lifting high mountains and bringing them low again; a god that makes straight crooked paths and brings justice and salvation in his wake. A god that can comfort the afflicted. A god who carries the ewes in his arms like a loving shepherd who never loses one of the little ones entrusted to his care. That’s the God that we are called to believe in if we wish to experience his glory and power when he returns again as he has promised that he would do to right the wrongs of life and wipe away our tears, and turn our sadness into glad dancing.
We are challenged to measure, not just with our own limited sense of time as the measurement of all things, but to see things as God does; where one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are but a day. To accept this divine metric is to believe that however much or little time we are allotted in life, be it measured in years, months, weeks, or even be it a few short hours, it is sufficient to accomplish the end God intended for that soul. Sufficient to attain its promised reward of salvation. And sufficient to bring to pass the graces He intended that life to be for others. For this is the challenge put to us today by Peter in our 2nd reading. To see things from God’s perspective as an eternal being, and not just from our own transient sense of time as ephemeral beings that live for a few years and then are gone. This too is part of the comfort our faith can bring to us. It is what we are called to share with others.
How are we to live out this challenge? Today’s gospel passage, taken from the very beginning of Mark’s ‘good news’ gives us the answer. We are all called to be John the Baptist, proclaimers of the coming Kingdom of God. We are called to offer the answer of the cradle, the cross and the empty tomb as our belief that there exists a God who loves us into existence, cradles us throughout our lives, and ultimately desires to bring us back home to him. I know that this can sometimes seem a cold comfort and be hard for some to believe. I am aware that was the case for some gathered around the bereaved parents I stood beside this afternoon. But it the truth of our faith… and it is all that we can really hold on to in times of profound grief and pain.
But I know too that the proclamation of John the Baptist is indeed fulfilled in the person of Jesus. And I know that it is his message of salvation that is our one sole real source of comfort in the face of death. For when one is looking down at a tiny white coffin being lowered into the frozen ground… that little small box which contains all a parent’s dreams, hopes and desires for their child after he breathes his last… real comfort is a much sought after but rare commodity. It is especially true in times such as this afternoon’s grave service. But it is nevertheless true, especially whenever suffering or trial confronts us and others that we love and cherish.
May God give us the grace and courage to proclaim the Good News of faith wherever we find ourselves this week. May He inspire us to be words of encouragement, hope, and faith to those in doubt, grief, or any type of trial which darkens their lives. May we never be afraid to proclaim our faith in the promises of Jesus, no matter how dark or somber the occasion. Let us truly be a ray of light for each other today and every day to come until we all receive the promised rewards that our faith tells us awaits us when we return to God. And may the warmth of our faith bring a measure of comfort of the Vaillancourt and Morris families whose souls are so deeply chilled by the death of their infant child we buried today.