I traveled to New York City last weekend to attend the funeral of a woman who had been like a grandmother to me. (For a few years, she had actually been my grandmother; my family looks more like a grove than a tree.) Anyway, it was a hurried morning: rushing to walk the dogs in the dark, rushing to catch the 6:00 a.m. train, rushing to catch the subway, being utterly immobilized in traffic, and, finally, dashing through a downpour into the doors of the church for another Catholic funeral.
Here’s a secret: I don’t like Catholic funerals. They often feel to me like boilerplate — as if there are so many burials and so few clergy that they just run on autopilot. And this one was no exception: a homely church, its walls half-heartedly painted to look kind of like stone; an elaborate altar with a lovely mosaic pattern whose colors did not go together at all; indifferent music; an uninspiring priest. I settled in to endure it, and then realized something else: God was there. Powerfully present. There in all the tawdry surroundings, there in the woman singing off-key, there in the particular humanity of the bored priest going through the motions in his city accent. Coming to us, not as we wish we were, but as we actually were that day, in all our mediocrity and all our grief.
The churches I have served have striven for excellence in worship: for thoughtful words, evocative gestures, rich music, lovely surroundings. We try to offer God our best, because that is what God deserves. But it can be tempting to forget, with all those graces, that God is among us even when those graces are not there, even when banal is the best we can do. Before Jesus came, the Jews believed that excellence was what each of us was called to embody, that God loved those who were righteous and kind and good. The scandal of Christ’s teaching was his claim that God also loved the failures, the nobodies, the average Joe’s and Jane’s going about their humdrum lives. The people who come to church without dressing themselves up, who stay there with wandering minds, going through the motions, wondering when it will all be over. Christ is among them, too.
Halfway through the service, my friend, who was burying her mother, turned from the front pew and saw me there, sitting in the back. And she gestured for me to join her and embraced me and clung to my neck, weeping, but her face was a face of joy. And I held her in return and felt like the Prodigal Daughter, to receive such a welcome for nothing — nothing at all, except showing up, rushed and distracted as I was.
May God grant each of us such a welcome when we come to our last days, not because we were so fantastic, but because we were. Just because we were in this world.