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Homily at Beau Biden funeral: A life of love, commitment, friendship

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The following is the prepared text of Jesuit Father Leo J. O’Donovan’s homily at the June 6 funeral Mass of former Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden in St. Anthony of Padua Church in Wilmington. Father O’Donovan, president emeritus of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., was the main celebrant.

Dear friends: The reaction has been universal, whether you were a friend of Beau Biden’s or knew him only from the press. “How sad.” “How very, very sad.” “It’s heartbreaking.” “When I heard the news I wept.”

This great young man, this splendid son, this devoted, deeply loving husband and father, as true a brother as anyone could ever have, this peerlessly patriotic public servant — gone. Gone. Gone. It was, is, like the night of Good Friday. The one we hoped in, counted on, thought our future, has been taken from us.

The casket with the body of Beau Biden, son of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, is carried into St. Anthony of Padua Church in Wilmington, Del., for his June 6 funeral Mass. Beau Biden, 46, died May 30 after a battle with brain cancer. (CNS photo/Yuri Gripas, pool via Reuters)
The casket with the body of Beau Biden, son of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, is carried into St. Anthony of Padua Church in Wilmington, Del., for his June 6 funeral Mass. Beau Biden, 46, died May 30 after a battle with brain cancer. (CNS photo/Yuri Gripas, pool via Reuters)

How do you say goodbye to “the finest man any of us have ever known”?

First, I think, we face the loss. The fact that we have lost the handsome, winning, humble presence of an incomparable gift. The richness of that gift is the measure of our grief. The nobler a man is the more he is praised and even revered. But the truly noble man, the “righteous man” of the Book of Wisdom, knows that the one to be praised and indeed worshiped is not himself but his Creator, the ground and goal of his life. For all his sense of responsibility and commitment, he knows that he did not invent himself but was given life and a world to fulfill it in by a loving Lord. Only at the end of that life can he or his Lord or indeed any of us make a full accounting of its achievement.

Whether young or old at our dying, it is only then that we can say of the life we have been given, and of all those we have loved within the gift: Take it now, Lord; it was your gift, all my family and friends and public service were your gift as well. Take them now, enfold them in your mercy, lead us home. You alone know fully the grace that accompanied your gift.

As surely as Beau Biden knelt at night to pray with his wife and children, he knew this truth, whether in these words or some like them. For he knew the words of Jesus on the cross — “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!” — that are offered to all of us to share on the Good Fridays of our lives.

Whether in prolonged suffering, like Beau’s, or in the gradual diminishments of age, our mortal lives are gifts that must pass through the darkness of death if they are to know the splendor of eternity. In this sense, “death is not extinguishing the light,” as the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote; “it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.” Or in the words of Paul: our hope is that even “if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands” (2 Cor 5.1).

Beau’s life of giving, to his fellow citizens and above all to his family, was dazzling. As a young lawyer working for the Justice Department in Philadelphia and also in war-torn Kosovo, as a member of the Delaware Army National Guard and a major in the Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps, as Attorney General of Delaware forgoing a run for the United States Senate because he felt it his duty to continue his mission to protect children from abuse — the watchwords were honor, courage, integrity.

My own favorite picture shows him standing before his father at an American base near Baghdad on July 4, 2009, mid-way through his deployment to Iraq. The two men known for the warmth of their smiles are close to grim. A sense of danger and possibly worse hangs over the crew-cut son in fatigues looking into the eyes of the earnest father. There is no limit to what the protection of life may entail.

Nor was there for Jesus. If all of life is ultimately gift, how was he the gift that would redeem and fulfill the gift of our creation? How did God give us this Son to reveal God’s vision of the world and lead it to God? I would prefer not to say that God gave us the Son to die for us. (What father could imaginably envisage that?) Rather, God gave us the Son, God’s own Word in our flesh, to live with and for us. God gave us Jesus to preach the Kingdom among us, a reign of reciprocity, forgiveness, healing and fulfillment.

If that mission led to violent rejection by authorities, civil and religious, that it threatened, then so be it. Jesus would not turn back. He remained true to his word in the very deepest sense, even to the cross, which made it possible for God once and forever to reveal the power of his forgiving love over even the cruelest death.

Death is always cruel. We feel that today, moving from Good Friday into Holy Saturday, when all is silence, feelings are muted, grief and mourning overtake everything. Beau is gone.

But from our immediate vision only. For we live now not only after Good Friday and through Holy Saturday, but in Easter.

And here is Beau’s great final gift to us. Promising as he most assuredly was, his death calls us to hear again the promise, the promise that the gift of life entails. It is the promise first given to the Jewish people that their God would never fail them but would be faithful to them forever. It is the promise spoken by Jesus to Martha of Bethany, after the death of her brother Lazarus: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, though the person dies, yet shall that person live.”

In Jesus Christ, writes St. Paul, “it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why we utter the Amen through him to the glory of God” (2 Cor 1.19-20) .

In a few moments, in our Eucharistic Prayer, we will recall this mystery of our redemption, the fulfillment of the promise that attended creation from its beginning and courses through it still in the Holy Spirit. And for us, in a special way, it becomes the promise of union with Beau in the Communion of Saints — now, and one day forever. We pray to be united now, and one day forever, with a remarkable man for whom belief was not simply a view of life but engaged love, not merely confession but commitment, not only a generous life but a discipline of justice meant ultimately for friendship.

For many of its saints, the Catholic Church celebrates their feast on the day of the saint’s death — the day of final union with God through Christ and in the Holy Spirit. I have little doubt that in this sense May 30, 2015, is a feast day for everyone here. We may be weeping still, and may weep more. But thanks to Beau this is also a time of almost unlimited grace. I pray, for all of us, that the gift and promise of his life may deepen our love and faith and hope in God — and in one another.