Ceremony Sacred and Secular
Fr. Peter J. Daly
February 11, 2004
Standing next to the grave in our parish cemetery, the winter wind began to blow my vestments around. When I finished the final prayers I stepped back two paces from the grave as a signal to the Marine guard to start the military honors.
The sergeant in charge of the rifle squad raised his sword. Six Marines raised their rifles toward the sky. Fire! Fire! Fire!
Birds flapped into the air. In the courthouse parking lot next door to our church I saw a sheriff’s deputy turn around suddenly when he heard the gunfire.
When the rifle salute was finished, the bugler raised his horn and played “Taps.” It was the real version, not the recorded rendition you sometimes hear at funerals these days. Something about the playing of “Taps” silences everyone. I cannot hear it without getting a lump in my throat.
We raised our hands to our hearts. I saw one mother instruct her child on which hand to put over his heart. Another told her son to take his hands out of his pockets and stand straight.
Slowly the honor guard began to fold the flag. They kept it taught. Folding first one way, then the other, into a neat triangle. As the flag was folded, they passed it up the line of the honor guard, until it reached the sergeant in charge. He tucked the hem of the flag into place to form a compact package of stars on a field of blue.
Moving slowly and precisely, he gave the flag to the sergeant with the saber, who walked around the grave and presented it to the widow “with thanks from a grateful nation.” He then stepped back a pace and saluted. He turned and the honor guard smartly walked away in unison.
Each movement carefully choreographed. It was done with precision and reverence.
Watching the care these Marines took, I wished we could get our servers and Eucharistic Ministers to show the same kind of care and reverence at the sacred liturgy.
Our modern age is marked by sloppy informality. Only a few organizations still recognize the importance of ceremony and symbols. Certainly this short list would include the Catholic Church and the American military.
Our culture disdains reverence. Everything is supposed to be casual. People speak of the “irreverence” of pop stars as if it were a virtue. The idea that we should dress respectfully, stand up straight, pay attention, be silent, and allow a long ceremonial gesture to play itself out, is something lost on the MTV generation.
Precision and reverence in ceremonies, whether sacred or secular, remind us that some moments are different. Some things are sacred. Some actions are not to be rushed or done casually.
Our sacred liturgy, when done properly, conveys a sense of significance and sacredness. Catholic funerals are dignified and they should be. Sometimes things are formal. The prescribed form gives us a way to express deeper feelings, beyond words. Ceremonies are a sort of ritual dance in which we all have our movements.
Liturgical gestures, like bows and genuflections, are signs of the sacred. They go beyond words. They say, “These things are not to be treated lightly because they are holy and significant.”
Certainly if any moment qualifies as significant and sacred, it is the observance of death. It is the pre-eminent “sacred moment.” Like the famous line in Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman, says, “A man has died, attention must be paid.”
I think that is what the Marine guard did. That is what we were doing on a cold winter afternoon in our parish cemetery.