Probably twice a week for the last fifteen years, I've stood huddled with grieving families around the grave of a loved one, and have committed a body to the earth. "Because God has chosen to call our brother/sister from this life to himself, we commit his/her body to the earth, for we are dust and unto dust we shall all return." Nothing in life ever appears so definitive as the act of placing a body into the ground. Every ounce of natural hope expires in that moment. Natural hope dims as we grow older. Eight year olds hope to become shortstop for the Red Sox; forty year olds do not. In fact, when we see the middle-aged man attempting to re-produce the natural hope that properly belongs to someone younger, we pity him. I recall a funny commercial starring Peyton Manning giving a pep talk. He says, "Wondering how to get rock hard abs? I'll be honest with you. Unless you are under the age of 23 or are a professional football player, it probably ain't going to happen. I'd say you should probably just buy bigger shirts." Yes, natural hope fades.
The cemetery is the most sobering confirmation of the passing nature of things. We know that when we place that body into the ground, it is not simply a cessation of growth; it is the beginning of decomposition. In other words, it is not just a lack of moving forward that we see in death, but an actual deterioration.
Natural hope is a good thing. It moves us forward and makes us achieve greatness. It is also why the death of a young person is particularly painful. We recognize that natural hope belongs by right to the young. We look at the young person and see all of the possibility. When that life is cut short we grieve more because death didn't just claim what rightfully belonged to it, but stole that to which it had no claim.
Whether one dies of old age or tragically young, natural hope dies too. Nobody who goes down into the grave is going to be shortstop for the Red Sox (sorry, Field of Dreams), go off to medical school, or travel cross country. Standing at the grave reinforces within us the finality of death. Despite all of the efforts of modern funeral arrangements to sanitize death, in the end, the last word is going to be a shovel of dirt.
Is that it? From the perspective of natural hope, yes. That is indeed it. But, there is a better hope. It is supernatural hope. The reason we Christians stand at the graveside is not just to reinforce within ourselves a sense of hopelessness. When we Christians stand at the graveside and commit a body to the earth, we are doing so with supernatural hope. We are claiming something quite extraordinary. We are saying that this body will come to share in the glory of the resurrection. Despite every appearance of all hope being lost, we are saying that Christ will raise this body and make it like his own in glory.
For the Christian, although natural hope fades with length of years, supernatural hope grows. The Christian is saved from the melancholy that would naturally arise in the heart of one whose hope continually grows dim. The Christian who more and more is drawn into the Christian mysteries moves towards the grave with the confidence that he has more tomorrows than he does yesterdays. The person who only possesses natural hope (and again, natural hope is good) eventually realizes that each passing day moves him one step closer to the end of everything. For the Christian, each passing day lived in grace propels him towards his proper end; eternal life.
It is supernatural hope that allows the Christian to freely and obediently fall to the ground and die like the grain of wheat. Filled with Christian Hope--supernatural hope--the Christian is made able to die to self. Obedience always brings about in us some form of dying. By obeying God's will, we put to death within ourselves all rebelliousness. We say, "no" to ourselves and, "yes" to Christ. Unlike the grain of wheat that has no choice but to fall to the ground, the Christian obediently falls to the ground with Christ. We freely bury ourselves with him, confident that we shall share in his resurrection.
Lent provides all of us an opportunity freely to fall to the ground and die in Christ. In acts of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, we die to ourselves and experience already here and now the firstfruits of the hundredfold promised by Christ. The more we are united to Christ in his death, the more supernatural hope within us grows. In this process, we continually deepen our friendship with Christ, trusting him more and more. Thus, the Christian ultimately enters the grave not as do men who have no hope. The Christian enters the grave filled with joyful hope that he who is buried with Christ in a death like his, will also share in a like resurrection.
Natural hope is a wonderful thing. But, it can't last. The best we can do is simulate it by buying bigger shirts. Lazarus, on the other hand, was dead for four days and Jesus raised him. Bigger shirts can't cover over death. Jesus doesn't try to cover over death. He invites us to enter into death--every day--trusting that he will bring us out the other side. Catholic life provides what every human being is desperately desiring: Hope.