17 September 2022

Homily - What can we learn from the grief on the death of Elizabeth II?

The Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Dear brother and sisters,

Across the globe, in these past few days, we have seen and heard prayers being raised to Almighty God for a monarch who reigned for more than seventy years (cf. I Timothy 2:1-2). It has been a striking spectacle to witness, and one many have found deeply – and surprisingly - moving. What are we to make of what we have seen and of what we have heard?

We must first consider what it is that we have seen. Thousands of men, women, and children have queued for hours – some as many as twenty-four – to walk by the bodily remains of a woman they cannot see. They have willingly – and even gratefully - gone without food and drink, without sitting or lying down, and even without the use of a restroom simply to spend perhaps fifteen second walking past a coffin draped with a flag.


Photo: Associated Press/Mike Moore

Pausing before the body of Her Majesty Elizabeth II, men bowed their heads with deep regard and admiration one final time to the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and numerous other realms and territories. Women made a polite and respectful curtsy. Children imitated their appreciative parents. Veterans, and those still in service, offered one final, tearful salute.

Each of these were expected gestures from those who loved their sovereign who dedicated what proved to be here long life to their service, but what is surprising is the great number of people queuing up for so many hours.

Second, we ought to consider what we have heard. Many commentators and pundits have noted the tremendous outpouring of gratitude, but what they have not spoken of is what is most important of what we have heard: nothing. As thousands of people made their way through Westminster Hall, aside from the rap of a staff and the tap of military shoes at the changing of the guard, all we have heard is the wordless moving of the masses.

In the midst of that austere silence, how many men, women, and children have we witnessed make the Sign of the Cross as they offered a quiet prayer for the peaceful repose of the one known to God as Elizabeth Alexandra Mary? The percentage of those who offered such a public and quiet demonstration of their faith is staggering, given that the United Kingdom is reportedly – and by most metrics is – almost entirely secular and devoid of religious devotion and intention. And yet, in the midst of their communal grief, these simple rituals – the bowing, curtsying, saluting, and signing, all of them religious in origin and in content – serve to help people mourn the loss of one they looked to as the grandmother of the nation. What are we to learn from this? We can come to a deeper understanding of the importance of ritual in human life. There is something to be said for expressing profound and heartfelt emotion – whether joyful or mournful - not in loud, flashy, and attention-seeking ways, but in the expansive richness of subtle and unassuming rituals.

Photo: Getty Images

And yet, there are those who wish to do away with such rituals, particularly religious ones, even in the face of the obvious good they hold for countless people. Of this desire, Queen Elizabeth II said in her Christmas Broadcast in 1957:

The trouble is caused by unthinking people who carelessly throw away ageless ideals as if they were old and outworn machinery. They would have religion thrown aside, morality in personal and public life made meaningless, honesty counted as foolishness and self-interest set up in place of self-restraint.[1]

If such intimate ceremonies of honesty and self-restraint are able to convey and express the varying emotions of an entire people at the death of their queen, how much more are self-restraining rituals able to express the varying emotions of the People of God and instill within them ageless moral ideals?

There are those who want the liturgical rites of the Church to be imbued with more externally emotional expressions because they think doing so will draw more people into the Church, even against the evidence to the contrary. They even – sadly – abandon the Church in search of communities where such emotional highs can be sought. 

What they are really seeking is not the worship that God asks of his people – he gave us a ritual to follow at the Last Supper and entrusted it to his Apostles and their successors – but something more akin to entertainment and self-fulfillment. Faith, though, is not primarily concerned with emotions, entertainment, or even the self; rather, faith is concerned with an adherence to the Truth, to Jesus Christ.

Human emotions come and go. As such, our emotions are not always reliable. We misjudge them and misinterpret them. They frequently mislead us and cause up to jump to false conclusions. Moreover, emotions are concerned with, and are primarily focused upon, the human person, upon me as an individual; however, “worship in spirit and truth” is not concerned with humanity, with you or with me, but with God (John 4:24). The Mass is not about us, but about God, and about what God wishes to do for us, namely, to divinize us and conform us to the heart of his Son. 

There is a quiet wisdom to be found in the sober ceremonies with which the members of the Body of Christ draw near to Christ the “one mediator between God and man” (I Timothy 2:5). Effective rituals are unchanging both by nature and by design because they allow us to enter into the mystery more fully; they do not require constant work on our part, always trying to figure out what we are to do next, but rather allow us to be subsumed into the ritual action. In the liturgy, “it is not we who are celebrating for ourselves, but it is the living God himself who is preparing a banquet for us.”[2] The consistent quality of the liturgy helps to be fed by the Lord, to be open to his words and nourished with himself.

To learn this wisdom the liturgy offers to us, we must set aside the exuberance of so much of modern society, an exuberance that pretends at happiness, but is really quite empty of authentic joy. Whether those of the Mass, or of baptism, confirmation, confession, marriage, ordination, or, indeed, even of a funeral, the simplicity of the Church’s ceremonies allows each person to enter the sincere worship of God. It does not matter if an individual worshiper is feeling particularly melancholic or exceptionally giddy; each one, and everyone in between, can be united in the presence of the self-giving and self-impoverishing love of God and be taken up together into this love unlike any other (cf. II Corinthians 8:9).[3] Indeed,

The Christian liturgy is the worship of the universal temple which is the Risen Christ, whose arms are outstretched on the Cross to draw everyone into the embrace of God’s eternal love… It is important that every Christian feel and be truly integrated into this universal “we” which provides the “I”, the basis and refuge of the “I”, in the Body of Christ which is the Church.[4]

This, after all, is the very goal of the Christian life, to be integrated into Jesus Christ and share in the divine life of the Trinity.

Let us, then, not desire to conform the liturgy and rituals of the Church to ourselves, but to conform ourselves to the liturgy and rituals of the Church, to lose ourselves in them, so that, living in “all devotion and dignity,” we may perfect union with Christ and know in him the fullness of everlasting joy (I Timothy 2:2). Amen.

[1] Queen Elizabeth II, Christmas Broadcast, 1957.

[2] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, 21 August 2005.

[3] @discerninganew, response on Twitter to Father Daren Zehnle on 16 September 2022.

[4] Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience Address, 3 October 2012.

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