Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Today, we invite you to explore life on earth and after death through Black spirituals; engage Catholic Social Teaching on disposability and end of life care; and contemplate how love, relationship, and community survives death with the help of Florence Wald and the U.S. hospice movement, and the Botanical Garden of Healing.
Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Wisdom is radiant and unfading,
easily discerned by those who love Her,
and is found by those who seek Her.
She reveals herself
to all who desire to know Her.
Those who rise early to search for Her
will not grow weary of the journey,
for they will find Her seated at the door of their own homes.
To ponder Her is the fullness of Wisdom
and to be loyal in Her pursuit
is the shortcut to freedom from care.
She searches the far ends of the earth
for those who are worthy of Her,
and She appears to them on their daily path with kindness,
meeting them halfway in all their journeys.
Response: My soul thirsts for You, O God.
O God, You are my God whom I seek; / for You my flesh pines and my soul thirsts /
Like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water.
R: My soul thirsts for You, O God.
Thus have I gazed toward You in the sanctuary /to see Your power and Your glory.
For Your kindness is a greater good than life; / my lips will glorify You.
R: My soul thirsts for You, O God.
Thus will I bless You while I live; / lifting up my arms, I will call upon Your Name.
As with the riches of a banquet / will my soul be satisfied,
And with exultant lips / my mouth will praise You.
R: My soul thirsts for You, O God.
I will remember You upon my couch,
And through the night watches I will meditate on You:
That You are my help, / and in the shadow of Your wings I shout for joy.
R: My soul thirsts for You, O God.
Sisters and brothers,
we want you to be clear about those who sleep in death;
otherwise you might yield to grief and lose all hope.
For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again,
in the same way God will bring with Jesus
all who have fallen asleep believing in Jesus.
We are speaking to you now just as if Jesus were speaking to you:
we who live, who survive until Jesus returns,
will have no advantage over those who have fallen asleep.
No, Jesus will personally come down from heaven with a shout,
at the sound of the archangel’s voice and the trumpet of God,
and those who have died in Christ will rise first.
Then we the living, the survivors, will be caught up with them in the clouds
to meet Jesus in the air—and thenceforth we will be with Jesus unceasingly.
Therefore, console one another with these words.
Jesus told this parable to the disciples,
“The kindom of God could be likened to ten attendants
who took their lamps and went to meet the bridal party.
Five of them were wise, five were foolish.
When the foolish ones took their lamps,
they didn’t take any oil with them,
but the wise ones took enough oil to keep their lamps burning.
The bridal party was delayed, so they all fell asleep.
“At midnight there was a cry:
‘Here comes the bridal party!
Let us go out to meet them!’
Then all the attendants rose and trimmed their lamps.
The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’
But the wise replied, ‘Perhaps there will not be enough for us;
run to the dealers and get some more for yourselves.’
“While the foolish ones went to buy more oil, the bridal party arrived;
and those who were ready went to the marriage feast with them,
and the door was shut.
When the foolish attendants returned, they pleaded to be let in.
The doorkeeper replied, ‘The truth is, I do not know you.’
“So stay awake, for you do not know the day or the hour.”
The Inclusive Lectionary © 2022 FutureChurch. All rights reserved.
The inclusive language psalms:
Leach, Maureen, O.S.F. and Schreck, Nancy, O.S.F., Psalms Anew: A Non-sexist Edition
(Dubuque, IA: The Sisters of St. Francis, 1984).
Used with permission.
The community will gather again
At times, progressive Christians are hesitant about claims regarding the afterlife like those made by Paul in today’s reading. Oftentimes a fixation on a Heaven after this life runs the risk of an otherworldly faith that minimizes the painful realities of death and deemphasizes action in this life. If our focus is a perfect, eternal life in Heaven, why would we work to make our fragile, fleeting world better?
The Black spirituals, a genre of music forged in the resistance to slavery and the pursuit of freedom, include references to the afterlife that confound the tendency to see the otherworldly as separate from the concerns of justice in our time. In the well-known spiritual “Sweet Chariot,” for example, the chariot “coming for to carry me home” refers both to the hope in escaping to freedom in this life and the expectation of finding a home with God in the life to come.
To James Cone, founder of Black liberation theology, these songs functioned as the community’s way of doing theology. He notes that “art and thought cannot be separated;” music reveals a community’s central themes and deepest questions (The Spirituals and the Blues, 9). For enslaved people, the spirituals served the cause of liberation in two ways. First, they turned the religion of the enslaver, often used to justify slavery, into a living tradition that affirmed the “somebodiness” of the oppressed “that is guaranteed by God who alone is the ultimate sovereign of the universe” (82). Second, they served as signals among enslaved people seeking to escape along the Underground Railroad. Furthermore, womanist theologian Cheryl Kirk-Duggan interprets the spirituals as “chants of collective exorcism that become vital in performance, living texts within the participants and the audience, for the singing proclaims and embraces their common story” (Exorcising Evil, 325).
Heaven is mentioned frequently in the spirituals. It serves not only as a metaphor for liberation in this life, but also as a literal expectation. According to Cone, the idea of heaven “did not mean passivity but revolution against the present order” (86). It was important to enslaved people that Heaven be an actual reality because it is a realization of God’s support for the oppressed and a promise for the restoration of community bonds broken by injustice. The common motif of “going home” in the spirituals actually serves as an “affirmation of the need for community.” Many slaves looked forward to Heaven because “they wanted to be reunited with their families which had been broken and scattered in the slave marts” (59).
Notice that Paul’s words of consolation reflect a similar concern with community. Paul is responding to heartfelt questions about loved ones who have died before Christ’s return. His vision of the afterlife is communal – the living will be reunited with the dead and Jesus’s saving work will be experienced in common. In the meantime, Christians are to “console one another.”
Although we do not know much about what eternal life will entail, we can learn from our tradition that our understanding of God’s love and justice needs to pose a challenge to those parts of our culture that avoid death or that attempt to sever our faith from our responsibilities to seek liberation in this world. We can also remember that we are never separated from community and that even in death we are not alone.
About the theologians: The individual authors of the Black spirituals are unknown. The songs we know today were composed in community through the organic sharing of music between tens of thousands of people. After the Civil War and Reconstruction, Black preaching often quoted spirituals as references to historical experience and God’s promises. With the rise of Black liberation theology, theologians such as James Cone and Cheryl Kirk-Duggan interpreted the text and practices of spirituals as theological texts that grappled with God’s promises to God’s people.
Commentary by Edward Dunar
Engage Catholic Social Teaching
Pope Francis poses a critique to a throwaway culture that renders death invisible by treating certain people or phases of life as disposable. Tending to the physical and spiritual needs of those close to death therefore serves as a way of recognizing the dignity of every person.
Francis first uses the term “throwaway culture” in his encyclical Laudato si’ while discussing the cost of consumerism on the environment. He describes consumer waste and pollution as “closely linked to a throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish.” He continues, “It is hard for us to accept that the way natural ecosystems work is exemplary: plants synthesize nutrients which feed herbivores; these in turn become food for carnivores, which produce significant quantities of organic waste which give rise to new generations of plants. But our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products” (20). A throwaway culture disregards natural processes and cycles in favor of the convenience of the few.
Ethicist Charles Camosy points out that this idea calls attention to the ways in which justice issues are woven together into a seamless garment. Whether environmental devastation, racism, or laws that undermine workers’ rights, a throwaway culture prioritizes disposability in the interests of power over commitment and a recognition of the good of creation and the dignity of every person. He explains in Resisting Throwaway Culture that throwaway culture “reduces everything – including people – into mere things whose worth consists only in being bought, sold, or used, and which are then discarded when their market value has been exhausted” (29).
The church’s teachings on the end of life reflect this commitment to human dignity by advocating a more equitable provision of palliative care. The U.S. Bishops write in their statement “To Life Each Day with Dignity: A Statement on Physician-Assisted Suicide”: “Our society should embrace what Pope John Paul II called ‘the way of love and true mercy’ – a readiness to surround patients with love, support, and companionship, providing the assistance needed to ease their physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering… Effective palliative care also allows patients to devote their attention to the unfinished business of their lives, to arrive at a sense of peace with God, with loved ones, and with themselves” (5). Institutions serving vulnerable people such as senior care facilities have historically made aging and death invisible in ways that reflected our society’s embrace of consumerism and individualism. A social approach to the treatment of death that respects the dignity of each human being would make us less avoidant of death’s inevitability and the needs of those who will soon pass on to the next life.
A Contemplative Exercise
Bring to mind someone who influenced your life and has passed away. Perhaps it is a friend, family member, teacher, or mentor. Remember the effect the person had on you and reflect upon how they continue to guide you today. Say a prayer of thanks for this blessing.
Now, imagine that this person is sitting beside you. Spend a moment in their presence however you think would be helpful. Perhaps you want to tell them something, ask a question, or seek advice. Maybe you want to sit in silence with them and enjoy their presence.
Finally, remind yourself that this person now rests in God’s loving presence. They are still connected with you because God promises that community and relationship survives death. Close your contemplation however seems appropriate. For example, you might imagine your loved one in the company of Jesus, continue to linger in their presence for a few more minutes, or ask for their intercession.
Florence Wald, the founder of the U.S. hospice movement, devoted her career to a more compassionate and humane approach toward death in medicine. Hospice is a model of care for dying patients that emphasizes honesty about the struggle of death, and the importance of alleviating pain to give patients the chance to tend to their emotional and spiritual needs at the end of their lives.
Born in 1917 in New York City, Wald had a decorated career in nursing that involved both practice and research through institutions such as the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and Rutgers University. In 1959, she became Dean of Yale School of Nursing.
Several years into this position, she attended a lecture by Cicely Saunders, the founder of the St. Christopher’s Hospice in London, and was inspired to begin a similar movement in the United States. In 1974, along with two pediatricians and a hospital chaplain, she founded the Connecticut Hospice in Branford, Connecticut. She was an advocate for hospice care for the rest of her life. In her final years, she became increasingly devoted to equitable prison hospice care.
Throughout her work, Wald was attentive to the importance of relationship and social justice while providing care to dying patients. In a retrospective article about her work, she reflected, “How much had the ability of medicine to transform pathology in the human body caused medicine to overlook the cost in human suffering and in dollars? How much had nursing conformed to the role of handmaiden to doctors instead of aid to the patient? Where was the balance between finite life of the body and infinite meaning of life? An interdisciplinary minority was coalescing, nationwide and worldwide, to bond health and human values” (“The Emergence of Hospice Care in the United States,” 1998).
You can learn more about Florence Wald and the hospice movement here: https://www.hospice.com/florence-wald-mother-of-hospice-in-america/
In 1998, Marlene Pratt lost her son to gun violence. Years later, when she moved to New Haven, the city where her son died, she was shocked at what she perceived as numbness and indifference to ongoing gun violence in the community. In response, she founded the Botanical Memorial Garden of Healing along with two other mothers who lost children to gun violence. They hoped to keep the memory of those killed by guns alive and spur a sense of urgency around confronting the root causes of the violence. The garden is the first of its kind in the United States.
At a community discussion about gun violence held at Albertus Magnus College in 2021, Pratt described the space she hoped to create for mourning loved ones. She explained that visits to the cemetery can bring up the trauma of burying a family member too early, so she sought to provide a place where people could avoid reliving this pain while still being able to reflect and remember. In this garden, wind chimes murmur as consoling calls for peace. Birds and animals in the garden provide a comforting presence and perhaps the thought that the spirits of those passed are nearby.
The garden is an expression of hope in a transformed reality. It provides a space for contemplation where the burning flames of memory might prompt action in pursuit of a world more in accordance with God’s loving plan for peace and justice.
You can find a brief video documenting the garden here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sltth4lRCNc
“A City Called Heaven” is a Black spiritual that expresses how God’s promises in the afterlife are connected to liberation on earth.
You can listen to a recording of Mahalia Jackson performing the song here: