I preached this homily today at the funeral of Father Alban Harmon, a good friend, in the chapel of Immaculate Conception Monastery, Jamaica, New York. He suffered from dementia the last years of his life.
Years ago, when my mother sat down to read The Bayonne Times, our local newspaper, she always turned first to the obituaries. They were the most important part of the paper for her. What your mother does, you do, and so I read the obituaries too.
In big papers like the New York Times you have to be important to get mentioned when you die. Other papers, besides necessary dates and facts, usually dwell on some accomplishments or honors the deceased has achieved. We like remembering people at their best when their strength was strongest, their minds were sharpest, and their words quickest. We don’t like thinking about any physical or social diminishment they’ve experienced.
Yet, as Christians we’re called to see all life as important, from the beginning to the end. Life is important even when it seems diminished.
We’re preparing now for Christmas, remembering that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came among us. The Word was made flesh. We remember the short time of his ministry, when he preached and worked miracles and died and rose from the dead. But for a longer time Jesus was unknown. For a few brief moments at his birth he was recognized, but then for most of his life he did nothing remarkable. He went unnoticed. He dwelt among us, walking through life in an unassuming way. Yet, by his presence we believe he blessed all human life, from birth to death.
“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who come to announce peace.”
I think Father Alban Harmon shared that gift of Jesus. He was an unassuming presence among us who blessed our lives and the lives of those who knew him. For all the years I’ve known him–and I think his family would say the same thing–Alban was always someone easy to be with. He was never a demanding presence, never a competitive presence, never an excluding presence; he was an easy welcoming presence, always more interested in listening to you than in you listening to him.
He was a refreshing presence, a humble man who brought the gift that Jesus brought when he said “Come to me, all you who labor and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you.” Alban was a gift of God among us.
I don’t want to exclude Alban’s accomplishments from his long life of 86 years. He was a missionary for 17 years in the Philippine Islands, he was a pastor, a teacher, a canon lawyer, but above all most of us appreciated his quiet, humble presence. That’s a gift we unfortunately forget. That’s not a small gift. That’s a great gift. We need to appreciate it and acknowledge it today.
Even when he was failing, Alban brought that gift to us. In his last years, when words didn’t come and his mind was not what it once was and his walking was slowed, Alban was always there, wherever the community was, he was there. He spoke mostly through his hands and his eyes and the limited strength that he had. But he spoke just the same.
When people came to our chapel or dining room or recreation, Alban met them with his warm hands and warm eyes. As he struggled at Mass with the words, he would stretch out his hands. “This is my body. This is my blood.” On his way from the chapel, as he passed the statue of Mary, he would reach out his hand to touch hers. With his hands and eyes and limited strength he expressed himself. We’ll miss him in the chapel, and the dining room, and the recreation, watching the evening news. He was a presence among us.
How beautiful on the mountains was this man who announced peace.
It’s important to notice the gift of life God gives, from the beginning to the end. We can forget so easily that life is at the beginning and at the end. “Life is changed, not ended,” we say in our prayers at Mass. Whatever change we experience, life doesn’t end.
For that reason, we’re so thankful here for so many wonderful people, our aides, our nurses, our health care workers, who appreciate that. We thank you for the life you saw in Father Alban and the care you gave him.
Life changes, it doesn’t end. Jesus Christ who came and dwelt among us and shared our life and our death promises more than this life. Listen to the way we say it in our prayers: “In him the hope of blessed resurrection has dawned, that those saddened by the certainty of dying might be consoled by the promise of immortality to come.
Indeed for your faithful, Lord, life is changed not ended, and, when this earthly dwelling turns to dust, an eternal dwelling is made ready for them in heaven.”
Alban, your life is changed, not ended.
Victor Hoagland, CP