A Funeral Homily for My Father
Funeral homily for Robert John Greydanus (April 30, 2021, St. Gianna Beretta Molla Parish, Northfield, New Jersey)
“This is not a memorial service. This is a celebration of life.”
Have you ever heard sentiments like that before at funerals or from people talking about how they’d like to be remembered?
Well, it’s true that we are gathered here today for a celebration of life.
We are here to celebrate the life of Jesus of Nazareth, who, by his coming into the world, by his life, ministry, death, and resurrection, brought to humanity a renewed communion with our Creator.
We are here to celebrate the life that is ours in Jesus Christ, the life of grace, of faith, of the Spirit, that he came to give us in abundance.
The life into which my father, Robert John Greydanus, was reborn in Baptism and made his own through faith in Christ; the life and faith that he sought to nourish and sustain throughout his life through the word of God, through prayer, through good works, through communion with fellow believers, and through communion in the body and blood of the Lord — as he did six days ago on Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday, hours before he would hear the voice of the Good Shepherd addressing him with a clarity beyond the clamor of this world.
Why This Homily Is Not About My Father
Many times while I was in diaconal formation, preparing to be ordained as a deacon, I told my father that he was not allowed to die before I was ordained, because I was determined that I was going to preach the homily at his funeral.
After I was ordained, he heard me preach many times. My father was very proud of all his children and grandchildren, and tried to hear me preach whenever he could. Last time he stayed at our house, he stayed a few extra days to hear me preach for what would be the last time of his mortal life. In the grace and mercy of God, I hope and expect he’ll hear what I have to say today.
Neither of us had any inkling when this day would come, or really any idea what I would say — God willing, not unaided by the Holy Spirit — but no one understood better than my father that whatever would ultimately come out of my mouth at his funeral, it would be, first and foremost, not about him.
I remember my father himself, as a Reformed minister, preaching at the funeral of his own father, John Samuel Greydanus, in 1989, younger then than I am now, since my father lived longer than his father. I don’t remember much of what he said except that he began by saying that the one thing his father would have wanted at his funeral was for the gospel of Jesus Christ to be proclaimed.
Thirty-two years later, I stand, essentially, where he stood. I am not here to eulogize, but even if I were, I could not begin to speak about my father in any true and important way without talking about what he believed, why it was important to him, and why it’s important to me.
“If It’s Just a Symbol, to Hell With It”
When I think about how my dad believed, I’m reminded of an image mentioned by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, in his great Introduction to Christianity: an image borrowed from a play that opens with a Jesuit missionary, a survivor of a shipwreck, lost at sea, clinging to a shattered fragment of the ship’s deck, lashing himself to the remains of the mast — “fastened to the cross, with the cross fastened to nothing, drifting over the abyss.”
That was the way my dad believed. Faith for him was no polite piety or tribal allegiance, but a life-or-death proposition, and he clung to the scriptures, to the Gospels, to Christ, with the tenacity of a drowning man. His attitude was very much in the spirit of St. Peter in John 6, after the Bread of Life discourse, when many disciples stopped following Jesus, and the Lord turned to the Twelve and said, “Do you also wish to go away?” “Lord, to whom would we go?” My father understood that very well. There is nowhere else. There is no one else. No other name under heaven.
Everywhere we look we loss, futility, corruption. Creation itself groaning, subjected to futility and corruption, as Saint Paul tells us in the reading from Romans we just heard. Nature red in tooth and claw, every life perpetuating its existence at the expense of other living things, going nevertheless in the end into oblivion, into the abyss, into nothing. Stars dying and being born, but all stars dying eventually: the whole universe sliding inexorably toward disorder, entropy, heat death, oblivion.
But Saint John, in the reading we just heard from Revelation, sees, after the first heaven and earth pass away, a new heaven and a new earth. God dwelling among his people and wiping every tear from our eyes. Some might dismiss this as poetic symbolism, but what John tells us is that futility and corruption do not have the last word, and that’s a life-or-death proposition to me as I look at that casket containing the mortal remains of my father.
I think of a famous line from the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor, and my father agreed: “If it’s just a symbol, to hell with it.”
Defiance of Death, the Last Enemy
Christians believe that the defeat of death and corruption is not just some apocalyptic idea glimpsed in visions like St. John’s. On the contrary, it’s something that has already begun in history: something that began a little less than two millennia ago in an earthshaking event that reverberates through the amazing account in St. Luke’s Gospel of the two disciples on the Emmaus road.
What happened on that momentous day, Easter Sunday, was not merely the reversal of death, like the raising of Lazarus, or Jairus’s daughter, or the widow’s son at Nain, among others. What we celebrate in this Easter season, and on every Sunday, and at every Mass, is not the mere reversal of death, but its defeat. Death swallowed up in victory. Our mortal flesh, the human flesh of Jesus, God made man, re-clothed in immortality. Sown in weakness, buried in weakness, but raised in power. Sown in dishonor, but raised in glory.
Some people regard the resurrection of Jesus as more poetic symbolism. There are all kinds of problems with that idea, but here, today, I can only say again: If it’s just a symbol, to hell with it.
I never saw my father drive past a cemetery without raising a fist in silent defiance of death, the last enemy. I’ve done the same on occasion, though it’s more traditional for Catholics driving past cemeteries to pray in these words:
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
There were many such culturally Catholic things that my father, coming late in life to Catholic faith — and being a creature of habit and set in his ways — never quite made his own. But I think our Lord understood the connection between the intention of that prayer and that of my father’s raised fist.
St. Athanasius and My Father
I think a similar spirit of defiance was part of what attracted my father, going back into his Protestant days and probably to his seminary studies, to St. Athanasius of Alexandria, the great fourth-century opponent of Arianism, the heretical teaching that Jesus was something less than coeternal with the Father; that there was a time when the Son was not.
In Athanasius’ day the Arian heresy was so popular that Athanasius was in the minority and was repeatedly exiled by one Roman emperor after another for defending the full divinity of Christ. It was said that the world was against Athanasius, and Athanasius has been credited with replying that in that case Athanasius was against the world: Athanasius contra mundum.
That stubborn intransigence when the fullness of faith was at stake was deeply moving to my father. (Not that stubbornness in my father’s case was limited by any means to the fullness of faith.)
When his pursuit of fullness of faith led him — as it did me and Suzanne, my sister Lisa, and our mother Marsanne — to the Catholic Church, Bob chose Athanasius as his confirmation name.
That’s why we put St. Athanasius on these prayer cards, along with a prayer of Athanasius on the back. The image depicts Athanasius holding a scroll which reads, “We venerate one God in Trinity and three Persons in unity.” The prayer on the back is a hymn in praise of the divinity of Christ.
By choosing that name — Athanasius — as his confirmation name, my father affirmed, in part, that his faith, in its essence, had not changed. All that was central to the faith of his youth and his ministry — the Holy Trinity; the full divinity and full humanity of Christ; his sacrificial death on the cross, which alone merits the grace of our justification — none of that had changed in any way.
That was important to my father: that the essence of his faith had not changed. Nothing had been lost, even as he found his faith being stretched and expanded in various ways.
“Our Souls Demand Purgatory, Don’t They?”
As a Protestant my father had taught me that because Jesus has atoned for our sins, those who die in Christ go straight to heaven and so we don’t pray for them. But he also introduced me to one of his great intellectual heroes of the faith, and mine, C.S. Lewis, who did pray for the dead and who did believe in purgatory.
Lewis helped both me and my father to understand, even as Protestants, that Christ dying for our sins in no way precludes the process, even in this life, of being purified of sinful inclinations and attachments — a process that, for most of us is still unfinished at the hour of our death.
Lewis helped us to understand the idea of purgatory as something attractive.
“Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they?” Lewis wrote. How it would break our hearts if we arrived before God still imperfect, and God said, “That’s all right. You can enter heaven just as you are.” We would say, “No, no, I want to be cleaned up — even if it hurts.” After all, Lewis reckoned, if all the real good that God has ever done him in this world involved suffering, why should it be different in the next.
Yesterday at the viewing we heard many winsome and wonderful stories about my father in which his virtues shone. Those of you who knew and loved my father don’t need me to tell you that the man was a work in progress. And progress was made! The grace and mercy of God was at work in him, healing and fixing him, in the last years of his life in a way that gives me great comfort. But that work was not finished six days ago.
Still, some of you may be hurt and offended at the suggestion that my father might still need our prayers — that he might not yet be in the full beatitude of heaven. But if you knew what my father believed, you know he would be the first to beg you not to be hurt and offended. If you ever prayed for him in this life, he would welcome you continuing to pray for him now. Even if you don’t necessarily believe in purgatory. Even if you don’t necessarily believe in God! There’s no harm in a prayer like “O God, if there is a God, have mercy on Bob’s soul, if he has a soul.”
“Lord, to Whom Shall We Go?”
We are here to offer for my father the most effective prayer we have, the holy sacrifice of the Mass.
I said this service is a celebration of life. It is also a memorial service — a commemoration, not of my father, but of the one who told his disciples at the Last Supper, “Do this in memory of me.”
As a Protestant, my father taught me that there is only one sacrifice, that of the cross. As a Catholic, he still believed that. There is only one sacrifice, that of the cross. The Mass is not another sacrifice. It doesn’t add to or repeat the sacrifice of the cross. Rather, it re-presents that one sacrifice in all its power for our benefit and that of those for whom we offer it.
Some people believe that the bread and wine of Communion merely symbolize the body and blood of Christ. It was about this reality that Flannery O’Connor actually said, “If it’s just a symbol, to hell with it.”
It was this teaching that drove Peter to say, “Lord, to whom will we go?”
What were the words that drove away so many of Jesus’ followers? “My flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
Those words, in part, were what drew my father to the Catholic Church. He believed all his life in Jesus; he loved Jesus, he wanted Jesus. What he found as a Catholic was simply more Jesus.
He believed that what he received six days ago, hours before his death, was no mere symbol, but Christ himself in his full humanity and divinity: the bread of life, the hidden manna, the medicine of immortality, in the words of the early Church Father St. Ignatius of Antioch.
My father cannot just now raise his fist in defiance of death. He knew this day would come. But he looked forward in hope, as do I, to a day yet to come when not just his fist but his whole being, body and soul, will rise again — not in defiance of death, but in victory over it, to greet our Lord when he comes again.
For now, while I can, Dad, I raise my fist on your behalf, and I pray for you — and all of you are welcome to pray with me, and, if you want, raise a fist for Bob as we pray — in the words you never quite learned:
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.