One of my jobs as a priest is to preside and preach at funerals. Never an easy task. The deep truths of our faith which can be so consoling at other times often don’t spin their magic when death is still raw. Later on they can do their work; but, at a funeral, the pain is often too all-absorbing for the words of faith to effectively break through and do much in the way of real consolation. Their full effect will take place in a way and in a time that respects the rhythm of human grief.
One sentence of consolation that I do often offer at a funeral is this one: He is now in hands safer than ours. She is now in hands much gentler than our own.
The truth of those words can be particularly consoling when the deceased is a young person, someone whom we feel still needs the hands of an earthly mother and father and whom we would want to trade places with because we feel that he or she is too young to have to leave us and go off in death, alone. That is also true in the case of someone who dies in a far-from-ideal manner, suicide or a senseless accident. Our unspoken fear is always that there should have been more time, that we should have done something more, been more vigilant, been more supportive, and we worry about a loved one departing this earth in so unfortunate a way. Finally, we have this same anxiety about someone who dies and has had a life that somehow never seemed to be free of extraordinary bad circumstance and frustration, and we wish we could somehow do something to make things better. In each of these cases, nothing can be more consoling than to believe that our loved one is now in far safer and gentler hands than our own.
But is this simple wishful thinking, whistling in the dark to keep up our courage? Fudging God’s justice to console ourselves?
Not if Jesus can be believed! Everything that Jesus reveals about God assures us that God’s hands are much gentler and safer than our own. God is the father of the prodigal son and, as we see in that parable, God is more understanding and more compassionate to us than we are too ourselves. We see too in that parable how God does not wait for us to return and apologize after we stray and betray. God runs out to meet us and doesn’t ask for an apology. We see too in the stories just preceding the story of the prodigal son how God does not leave us on our own after we sin, to come to our senses and return repentantly to him. Rather he leaves the ninety-nine others and comes looking for us, anxious, longing, and ready to carry us home, in spite of our sin.
Jesus gives us too the assurance that God does not give us just one chance, but seventy-seven times seven chances, infinite chances. We don’t ruin our lives forever by making a mistake or even by making that mistake inexcusably again and again and again. Finally, in St. Paul’s farewell message to us in his Letter to the Romans, he assures us that, even though we can’t ever get our lives fully right, it doesn’t matter because in the end nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from God’s love and forgiveness. We are, in this life and the next, in hands far safer and gentler than our own.
God is not a God of punishment, but a God of forgiveness. God is not a God who records our sins, but a God who washes them away. God is not a God who demands perfection from us, but a God who asks for a contrite heart when we can’t measure up. God is not a God who gives us only one chance, but a God who gives us infinite chances. God is not a God who waits for us to come to our senses after we have fallen, but a God who comes searching for us, full of understanding and care. God is not a God who is calculating and parsimonious in his gifts, but a prodigal God who sows seeds everywhere without regard for waste or worthiness. God not a God who is powerless before evil and death, but a God who can raise dead bodies to life and redeem what is evil and hopeless. God is not a God who is arbitrary and fickle, but a God who is utterly reliable in his promise and goodness. God is not a God who is stupid and unable to deal with our complexity, but a God who fashioned the depth of the universe and the deepest recesses of the human psyche.
Ultimately, God is not a God who cannot protect us, but is a God in whose hands and in whose promise we are far safer than when we rely upon ourselves.