This particular Sunday was not different from any other summer Sunday at Nuestra Señora del Rosario parish in Mexicalicapital of the state of Baja California in Mexico. It was scorching hot, with people milling about, finding shelter in a bit of shade in the patio fronting the church, and ladies selling tasty Mexican food and fruit juices in front of the church to raise money for the parish. A young man parked his battered pickup alongside the church and came to me asking if I would bless the body of his child before he went to bury her. I asked where the body wasthinking it was at his homeand he told me it was in the front of his truck. Taken aback, I accompanied him to the street. The child had died at birth, he said, as he pulled a little homemade boxthe size shoes come infrom the front seat.
I invited those who were standing around to accompany me, and at my urging the young father carried the little box to the church and we placed it on the altar. Everyone gathered around as I said a blessing over the baby, and together we joined in a few prayers and ended with a Marian hymn. I struggled to find something helpful, something consoling to say to the father. I wish I could have said, as Jesus did to the royal official whose son was critically ill, You may go, your son will live (Jn 4:50). Befuddled, all I could think of was, It looks like shes gone home before you. Shell be waiting there for you.
Most funerals in Mexico take place within 24 hours of death, because there is generally no embalming, certainly not in the case of the poor people. The young man carried the child off and drove out to bury her at the foot of El Centinela, the Sentinel, a 2,000-foot high mountain whose skirts flirt with the U.S. border dividing southeastern California from Mexico. A do-it-yourself type of cemetery is located there for the neediest families to bury their dead. Hundreds of white crosses, some flanked by plastic flowers, others overwhelmed by tumbleweeds, are nestled in the sandy, rocky soilnot in neat rows, but scattered haphazardly as space, cactuses and boulders allow. Care is needed to bury the bodies deep enough to discourage the coyotes from digging up the remains. Each time I drove past this bleak final resting place, I could almost sense the tangible presence of Jesus keeping vigil with his beloved poor. As Jacob said after wrestling with the angel, This place is none other than the house of God, the gate of heaven (Gen 28:17).
Life is an awesome gift, and the more the varied leaves of our lives open out to God, the greater the joy, the richer the beauty. We ought not wait for death and resurrection to experience the heartbeat of Gods love. We can plunge into that immediacy in the here and now. Everything we experience can be nourishment for our spiritual growth. Life is a call to become intimate with the Jesus who plays hide-and-seek with us, in whose apprenticeship we learn to be discoverers, to savor beauty, to share pain and loss, to be formed in compassion. A lifelong friendship with the Lord will lead us eventually through the time of death to a greater fullness of life. In his Letter to the Elderly of 1999, Pope John Paul II quotes St. Gregory of Nazianzus statement that a person will not grow old in spirit, but will accept dissolution as the moment fixed for the freedom that must come. Gently he will cross into the beyond, where there is neither youth, nor old age, but where all are perfect in spiritual maturity.
In some sense, this child, who never witnessed the rising of the sun, heard the chatter of the ravens or watched a sea otter frolic on its back, is mourned because she died a virgin in the experience of earthly life. She never saw the sparkle in a beloveds eye, the mist mingling in the tops of the redwoods, a flaming orange sun settle into the oceans horizon, nor did she hear the song of the whippoorwill.
But some might say this child was blessed for that very fact. I have known couples who decided not to bring children into a world so frightful and violent. Might we say, rather, that she is blessed not for what was missed, but for what she gained so early, and be heartened thereby? For this child took a direct flight from here to eternity, with no stopovers to delay her arrival.
Hasnt she immediately experienced the glory, grandeur and beauty of an enamored God and played in the sumptuousness of the Almightys garden? Hasnt she, rather, seen the twinkle in the creators eye, whereas we have only seen his hand in the glory of creation? Hasnt this child heard the angels sing, witnessed the Spirit sending forth its multifarious transforming graces, whereas we have caught but glimpses and hints of Gods tenuous presence among us? Hasnt she prayed for her parentsand they to the childthat they one day make the final turn on the road towards home, and know in a moment of intense intimacy the beauty of their child in a deeper way than they would have known had she walked with them for 60 years? When we arrive home, we will find our loved ones arrived ahead of us. They will be there to welcome and guide us around a Disneyland that Disney never dreamed of.
Death is a two-sided coin: at once a farewell and a welcome home. Here we only experience the farewell side at that metro station we call death. We who remain behind clutch dearly the memories and photos of our beloved ones. But those who exit here and climb aboard Gods train and continue homeward will experience a welcome greater than Times Square offers its heroes. Im sure that like your family who have gone before and who longingly await you, yes, this child will be there to welcome home her father, who in tears, amid cacti and tumbleweeds, buried her earthly remains. Why do you seek the living one among the dead? He is not here, but he has been raised (Lk 24: 5).