A HOMILY FOR
NORBERT DAVID ANDERSEN
(11 JAN. 1926 — 18 FEB. 2020)
Preached at a Solemn Requiem Mass celebrated by his grandson, the Rev’d Dom Benedict (Benjamin J.) Andersen OSB, son of Mr and Mrs Lawrence J. Andersen, at Silverstream Priory (Stamullen, Co. Meath, Ireland), on 22 February 2020.
One of the earliest Christian writings, after the New Testament itself, is a letter attributed to the Apostle Barnabas. It contains this mysterious line: “Mankind is earth that suffers, for Adam was formed from the face of the earth” (Barnabas 6:9).
That is a remarkable definition of what it means to be human: We are earth that suffers.
My grandfather, Norbert David Andersen, knew all about the earth. And he was no stranger to suffering, to struggle, and to loss. He knew about the earth because he was a farmer, all his life.
He knew about suffering because he was a father, and loved his wife Cherrie, his sons, and his daughters, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and laid down his life for them daily, even to the end.
His own father, Valdemar (Walter), an immigrant from Denmark, was a farmer. He was no stranger to suffering, and he like his son, laid down his life for his family.
His wife, Annie, from Ireland, would have grown up on a farm, only a few hours from here, in County Mayo. Simply to have been Irish at this time would have been to know immense suffering.
Many of Norbert’s family today — sons, daughters, grandchildren, great-grandchildren — are still involved, in some way, in farming; and all have, in various ways, have been visited by suffering.
Most human beings throughout history have been farmers, and that from the earliest days of our race. As far back as one can go, historically, anthropologically, man is a farmer, and man suffers. This is the human story: Mankind is earth that suffers.
The earth, the soil, is so linked to humanity that our English word “human” ultimately comes from humus, Latin for “earth”. Man comes from the earth; he returns to the earth; and in the time in between, he tills the earth. But that is not all.
Amidst toil and suffering, he is also the one who adores, the one who worships.
Our faith tells us that first man, fashioned from the dust of the earth, was a farmer, and that he lived with his wife in a paradise of delights.
Adam (in Hebrew word this simply means “a human being”) was placed over this paradise to be its king, but most importantly, to be its priest.
If you can indulge me for a moment in some more wordplay: in Latin, the word cultor has two meanings: both the one who tills, cultivates, the earth and the one who worships God. Cultor comes from cultus, that is, “adoration” or “worship”.
The Latin word for “farmer”, agricola (“farmer”) — from which we get “agriculture” — likewise has as its root word cultus. The word “culture” also comes from cultus: apart from human cultivation and religion, there is no “culture”, or at least one worth the name. Adam, then, was both original farmer and original priest, agricola et cultor. He was given this vocation by his Creator, whom Chesterton rightly called the “God of earth and altar”. It is only in light of this that we can begin to understand the Eucharist, Holy Mass, the Divine Liturgy, the most sacred rite of our faith.
Wheat is grown, ground down, baked into bread; grapes are cultivated, crushed, fermented into wine. Only then can they become sacrifice and sacrament. Farmer and priest are one.
Earth becomes heaven, man becomes priest, and the human, fashioned by God from the face of the earth, becomes divine. We are what you eat; we eat what we are; we eat here, from this altar, what you we will someday become.
The eucharistic gifts of bread and wine are offered “on behalf of all and for all”, and they return to us as the Body and Blood of God made man, that is, of the One who became earth that suffers.
Creation is received, cultivated, and made into cultus, into eucharistia: the sacrifice of thanksgiving for our creation and our sustenance, for the life of grace here, and for the glory that is to come, that very glory for which Norbert and each one of us were created. And that is why we are gathered around the altar, with bread and wine, on Norbert’s behalf. This is the primeval sacrifice of man, transformed by the Cross of Christ.
It is this sacrifice which we offer today for the soul of the departed servant of God, Norbert David Andersen.
God did not will death. It came into the world through the envy of the devil and the free choice of man. Yet God, in his inscrutable wisdom, allowed death to reign over us, and over all of creation (cf. Rom. 5:21; 8:20-21).
Why? Because he knew that he could do something even more wondrous, more stupendous for man, his Image and Likeness, formed from the face of the earth. The priest says something like this at the Offertory: the Creator outdoes even himself when he becomes the Redeemer. And that came precisely from death.
In a way we cannot and will never be able to fathom, according to the mystery hidden from the ages, but now revealed in Christ (cf. Rom. 16:25; Eph. 3:9; Col. 1:26), the poison became the cure; the mortal wound became the entrance of life; the curse became the blessing; our death sentence became our acquittal.
Yes, all of this is true, but the thing is this: you have to die to live. You have to pass through death. You have to go through the curse to get to the blessing. Death is the condition of life.
Norbert knew it instinctively: Norbert the agricola, the farmer, and Norbert the cultor, who worshipped, and even now worships, his Creator and Redeemer.
This, the secret of resurrection, is already the way of nature, of every living thing:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life (Jn. 12:24-25).
This, of course, is why funerals until very recently were celebrated in black vestments (and why, even now, I am wearing black vestments). The black is by no means a commentary on the state of anyone’s soul, though the Requiem Mass is certainly a pleading of the Church on behalf of the soul of the recently departed. No, the black is a statement of hope, a pledge of the resurrection, because black is the colour of the dark, fertile earth, rendered capable of life precisely by the presence in it of death, of dead organic matter.
Death, I will say again, is the condition of life, and this not only at the end of our natural, physical life on this earth. Death is the condition of life on a daily basis, on an hourly basis, on a minute to minute basis: always death to self and always living for others (cf. Phil. 2:4)
Norbert, I believe, died every day to himself to live for his family. Every day for him was a dress rehearsal for death. How many times in his life did he commend himself to Mary, his Life, his Sweetness, and his Hope, speaking to her of what? The hour of his death.
I do not believe that my grandfather was afraid of death. I saw him and spoke with him and observed him before Christmas. What I saw was not a man enslaved to the fear of death (cf. Heb. 2:15).
What I saw was a man who knew he died already in baptism (Eph. 2:1), who practiced death daily already for the wife and children entrusted to him by God. He lost his life daily (cf. Lk. 9:23-24), and now he begins a life that never be lost, that never decay, that can never be destroyed (cf. Heb. 7:16).
Yes, death is that narrow, dark, uncomfortable way that leads to life, but who is both our God and our brother in a common humanity passed through it already: through the Cross, through the tomb, to become the firstborn of the dead (Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:5), the eldest of many brothers (Rom. 8:29), and the pioneer of our salvation (Heb. 2:10).
Christ not only walked the dark, narrow way; he trampled it; he made sport of it; he conquered it; he subdued it; he made it his own precisely as our brother, as a human being, as earth that suffers. And so death is now subject to us; it belongs to us as our way to an indestructible life.
And it belongs today, in a special way, to Norbert David Andersen, agricola et cultor: the farmer, and the one who loved, served, and adored God, his Creator and Redeemer.