"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Archive for March 2016

Maundy Thursday Reflection

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I find that my experience of Holy Week, as we walk closer and closer to Maundy Thursday and Good Friday is a descent into darkness.  I’ve described it in the past as like waiting for your best friend to die at the end of the week, and knowing there is nothing you can do about it.  I think about darkness and suffering as a part of my Lenten vigil.

I’m also reading a book written by a woman in Winnipeg who is suffering the effects of progressive multiple sclerosis titled “Endearing Pain”.  As a chronic pain sufferer myself, her meditations on pain and loss of function and her faith have been quite powerful.  And so, I’ve been thinking a lot about suffering these past few weeks.

So what is it about this evening that we are here to do?  It’s a very strange evening if you look at it in the context of our overall church year, and the cycles that bring us throughout the year.  I’ve said before that everything we do here in worship, the motions we use, the songs we sing, all of this has very specific deep meaning that points us toward what it is that God is doing here in our midst.  On Maundy Thursday we’ve heard the recitation of the Last Supper and the departure of the one who would betray Jesus.  We have this sacramental image left with us tonight even though we know that tomorrow, the death comes.  We are in a place of darkness and yet at the same time we are surrounded by sacramental glory.  This is one of the key points of Maundy Thursday, that as we proceed through our last Eucharist, the last feast at the Lord’s table and move into the stripping of the church of its adornments, and as we walk home tonight in darkness we are experiencing the same thing that the disciples experienced, and the same thing that Christians have experienced for over 2,000 years.  This gathering together around the table for bread and wine, together.  It’s a truly awesome thing that we’re a part of here tonight.

And yet we’re in a place of great tension between this celebration of the Lord’s Supper as if we’re seated in the upper room around a table with the 12, and yet we know what’s coming tomorrow, even while they didn’t.  So this is also a good day to talk about sacraments as we prepare for Christ’s literal departure from the world.

I want to share a secret with you, and I hope I don’t lose my priestly guild card.  There are a series of prayers that are traditionally used by clergy of catholic persuasion around the celebration of Communion, called the “secret prayers”, but they’re not actually secret.  They would be more properly called “private prayers” that are part of the clergy person’s private devotion.  I happen to use the traditional ones, but most clergy I know carry on some type of internal devotion while they’re leading worship.

Sometimes when I’m celebrating, I may use one of them aloud, an opportunity to draw people into my private devotion.  Although they come from two psalms and one Gospel, there is a common thread that links them all together…which is the outstretching of my hands to God to obtain the things I can’t do for myself: salvation, being clean, being worthy, being healed.  Without God the only possible outcome of all my efforts, regardless of how focused and strong they are, is death.

What reward shall I give unto the Lord for all he has done for me?

I shall take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord,

So shall I be safe from my sins.  Psalm 116

Purge me with Hyssop, and I shall be clean.

Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Psalm 51

I am not worthy that thou shouldst enter under my roof,

But speak the word only, and my soul shall be healed. Matthew 8

Each time I take communion, these are the three prayers I utter, following an ancient liturgical tradition.  Sometimes if I am the celebrant, I may say them aloud, but usually these are done under the breath, so they cannot be heard, so-called ‘private’ prayers.  The prayers draw from two psalms, and from the Gospel account of the servant of the Centurion, but have a common thread that links them.  Without God, the only possible outcome of my own effort, is death.  Without God, the only possible outcome of my own effort, is death.

This is a theme that runs through our readings today, on the eve of the saddest day in the Christian calendar.  Why do I say saddest?  One of the traditional cycles of the Christian observance is this Lenten descent into darkness, it is a place we do not like to tread, and a place that many modern churches never contemplate.  We are in the midst of the most advanced society ever known, at least in terms of our science, and it leaves us in a place where we can fool ourselves momentarily into thinking that even death itself is only a small shadow of its former self.  We avoid the thoughts of death like the plague as much as we can because it is one of the few things remaining that has the power to remind us that the one thing this world cannot give us is immortality.  Well tonight we have no such escape.

So this descent into the darkness of Sheol, as our Saviour dies, is a necessary and important part of our yearly cycle of observances, the pattern of the Christian life, because it reminds us once again that we are but dust and to dust we shall return.  What do we have as a sure promise in the midst of that dust?  What reward shall I given unto the Lord for all he has done for me?  I shall take the cup of salvation, so shall I be safe from my sins.  Tonight we gather as a community in mourning, even though we know that in a few short days we will see the rising of a new Son, the only Son of the Father.  But, if we do not willingly walk the road to Sheol, that rising will not be a place where we can learn about living life in this broken world.

Lord knows that I take every opportunity I can to flee sadness, the thought of coming death and sickness, the thought of eyes growing dim as the inevitable march of time takes its toll.  Tonight, all that fleeing is pushed aside as the lie of my attempts to cloak the reality that faces each of us is made plain.  At least part of the reason that Jesus walks that path, and the reason we re-live the walking each year, is to remind us that God knows too well the pains of life in this world, because God surrendered the immortal to live our pain.  This can be real for us, because it was first real for God.  We can walk this path of darkness with steady step, not because of our human-borne courage against the unknown and trust in our own capabilities to overcome all obstacles, but because we know the way has already been blazed for us by the one who came to conquer death.  As the Orthodox will sing on Easter morn, Christ is risen from the dead, Trampling down death by death, And upon those in the tombs, Bestowing life! (and in Greek and Arabic) [this is formally called the Paschal Troparion]  Trampling down death, by death.

But, before we can sing that response with full heart, we must walk the path of darkness and death because this is the reality of our lives in this physical world.  Death can only be trampled down by death, if there is first a death.  And so here we are, this community of faith, in the midst of death, faced with the death of all those who have gone before, the reality of our death, and the death of those whom we love.  But, and this is a big but, because of Christ, rather than being an evening full of the grimness of grief, our sadness this eve is coloured by our foreknowledge of what is to come.  Because that death has been trampled down by death, those in the tombs have life bestowed.  Even our grief in this moment is coloured brightly by the reality of our faith, that even death itself has lost its sting.  This reversal is characteristic of all the inversions that Christ brought into being with the offering of his self.

God’s trademark move is that reversal.  For there to be life, there must first be death.  For the poor to be  lifted up, and the rich are sent empty away.  For there to be healing, there must first be disease.  God redeems the world — not through the might of armies, or legions of angels, in spite of his name being Yahweh Sabaot, God of the Angel Armies, God redeems the world through his own death to the sins of the world, so that he could rise again, and so that we could rise again.

This radical act of Christ changed the nature of death, and even more importantly for us, also transformed the nature of all suffering.  The world rejects suffering as empty; but even the bad in the world was redeemed by the coming of the Christ. Dorothy Sayers describes the impact of the event in Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World:

For whatever reason God chose to make people as they are – limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death – he had the honesty and courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game he is playing with his creation, he has kept his own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from us that he has not exacted from himself. He has himself gone through the whole human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When he was man, he played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it all worthwhile.

So, in Christ, because of Christ, all aspects of our lives are made truly worthwhile.  As we rest a moment in darkness this evening, and as we will in a moment divest our worship space of its adornment, know this: even the moments of darkness, death and suffering, even our worst moments, those have already been redeemed by the blood of Christ.  This is one of the core radical thoughts of our faith, and one of the reasons some reject Christianity as unhinged.  What are you talking about, glory in grief?  This is the very grace of God, distilled to its purest essence, and it is what keeps me going even in the darkest times.

I’ll close with the words of Malcolm Muggeridge, the English journalist and essayist and like Lewis, a late-life convert to Christianity.  Late-life converts to Christianity are able to bring to us images about the faith with crystal clarity that people like me, life-long Christians sometimes miss.  I stumbled across these words the other day, and they really struck me, especially knowing a little bit about Muggeridge’s life before Christ.  Listen to his words about how Christ transforms our suffering:

Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at that time seemed especially desolating and painful. I now look back upon them with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my seventy-five years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence has been through affliction and not through happiness whether pursued or attained. In other words, I say this, if it were possible to eliminate affliction from our earthly existence by means of some drug or other medical mumbo-jumbo, the results would not be to make life delectable, but to make it too banal and trivial to be endurable. This, of course, is what the cross signifies and it is the cross, more than anything else, that has called me inexorably to Christ.

It is only the cross of Christ that makes our lives bearable, and even more, it is only the cross of Christ that gives meaning even to our suffering and pain.  As so as we dwell in this moment of darkness, meditate on this: that even here, in the dark, rests Christ. Amen.

Written by sameo416

March 25, 2016 at 11:38 am

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Suffering, Redeemed

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As a chronic pain bearer I keep my eyes open for commentaries on pain and suffering.  These act as reminders to my soul about how I should think about my pain, that help me keep my eyes focused clearly on the cross as the only answer I need.

I’m reading a new book, “Endearing Pain” by Colleen Peters out of Winnipeg, documenting the experience of a woman with progressive MS.  There are many pieces of wisdom I will need to integrate before I am able to comment.  Some of it hits quite close to home, in only the way that words from a person that has lived chronic pain can understand.

I’m also reading Elaine Scarry’s book, “The Body in Pain” where she begins by describing how pains unspeakable nature disenfranchises sufferers by stealing from them the ability to describe their experience to the non-sufferer.  This aspect of pain can leave those who bear it in intense loneliness.  In that regard I am thankful fir my community that reminds me I am seen and real.

The first gift from Peters is a multitude of quotations she offers, that pointed me to this Christianity Today article from August 2009 by law professor William Stuntz:

Such stories are common, yet widely misunderstood. Two misunderstandings are worth noting here. First, illness does not beget virtue. Cancer and chronic pain make me sick; they don’t make me good. I am who I was, only more diseased. Second, though I deserve every bad thing that has ever happened to me, those things didn’t happen because I deserve them. Life in a fallen world is more arbitrary than that. Plenty of people deserve better from life than I do, but get much worse. Some deserve worse and get much better. Something important follows: The question we are most prone to ask when hardship strikes—why me?—makes no sense. That question presupposes that pain, disease, and death are distributed according to moral merit. They aren’t. We live in a world in which innocent children starve while moral monsters prosper. We may see justice in the next life, but we see little of it in this one.

Thankfully, God gives better and more surprising gifts to those living in hard times. Three gifts are especially sweet.

Which reminds me of the dialogue between Gandalf and Frodo about Smeagol…where Gandalf comments, many who have lived deserved death, and many who have died deserved life, be careful how you judge.

Stuntz goes on to indentify three gifts that change the nature of suffering:

1 . God redeems life’s curses.

2. God brings about a change in the character of suffering.

3. God remebers those who suffer.

Worth a read.

Written by sameo416

March 20, 2016 at 2:31 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Redress Exhibit — Ni wapataenan (We see)

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I attended the closing of the Redress exhibit this past Saturday.  The display was a spiral of de-branched pine trees, each holding a red dress on a hanger.  Artists had contributed literary works that were also attached to the trees.  In the centre of the spiral was the bare frame of a tipi, and in the centre of the tipi an empty fire pit.

The bare tipi frame and the empty fire pit are both images of the vacant hearth.  Those duties, raising the tipi and keeping the fire pit burning are responsibilities of the women. Because the women are all gone, there is no one to ensure the hearth and home are complete.

The redresses on the trees represent the missing and murdered indigenous women (MMIW).

As the “undoing” of the exhibition, the dresses were taken off the trees by the people present, and were strung together into a tipi skirt.  The bare frame was covered with the dresses that formerly represented the murdered women.  A fire was kindled in the hearth, started with prairie sage (one of the sacred medicines).  So the sadness and loss of the first part of the exhibit are transformed in the closure into a restored hearth and home.

Reforming the tipi skirt with the redresses:

redress 2

Rekindling the fire:

redress 1

The tipi skirt just getting started:

redress 3

The experience was extremely powerful.  I’ve mentioned before that this had some beginning in a vision of a snowy poplar forest, with a cold and empty tipi frame and firepit.  Cold and empty because the women were all gone.  That vision was transformed on Saturday into one of hope.

After the undoing of the exhibit we had a round dance with all the participants.  On my left was my wife, and on my right was a young Cree woman.  We spoke afterwards with her and her mother, and they mentioned that one daughter had died as a result of violence.

This offers me an image of what reconciliation actually looks like in practice…Metis man, settler woman, two Cree woman dancing around the symbol of hope and remaking of what the future could look like.

As I stood there and watched the fire burn, with the smell of sage and wood wafting around me, I was struck with a sense of call to the prophetic.  Not necessarily a good thing albeit a holy thing.

That sense of uncertainty continued to today, until I heard a portion of Psalm 32 read.  My answer came clear in verses 7-9:

You are a hiding place for me;
    you preserve me from trouble;
    you surround me with shouts of deliverance. 

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
    I will counsel you with my eye upon you.

Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
    which must be curbed with bit and bridle,
    or it will not stay near you.

The first part my prayer to God.  The second two verses God’s response.  Sometimes the answers come quite clearly, although not always the answer you were hoping for.

 

 

Written by sameo416

March 6, 2016 at 9:46 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

At the graveside…a sermon on ritual

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We are continuing in our read through the funeral rites as set out in the Book of Common Prayer, today speaking about the relatively short service at graveside, beginning on page 601, if you want to open up a maroon BCP and look at the service.

Opening points: Gospel.  Pilate asks if Jesus is already dead, but won’t he be surprised in about three day’s time.  This is a good example of the juxtaposition of the way of the world on the way of God.  Pilate knows Jesus is dead, because he knows that dead people stay dead, but not in God’s economy.  Genesis reading.  Hebrew loves word plays, the word ‘the ground’ in Hebrew is ha’adamah…while the word for ‘the man’ is ha’adam, both formed around the same root word ‘adam.  God literally takes a handful of ha’adamah and forms out of it the ha’adam, who we now call Adam.  Adam, that is all of us, are literally formed of dust, which will become important as we discuss the funeral service.

I first want to take a step back and talk about the overall flow of the rite that Don has been unpacking these past few weeks.  If you were to ask me for an adjective describing God’s glory, I would probably first offer up the word ‘symmetry’.  My observation of God’s economy in His creation is that there is always a beautiful symmetry to all that His will brings to pass.  Our church ritual, if it is being done correctly, also reflects a beautiful symmetry.  Ritual in the Church is quite literally the roadmap to living within the Body of Christ, and the motions and movements and words and songs that we utter in this building all point to the greater symmetry of God’s wondrous creation.  What do I mean?  Well, let’s step way back to speak about the overall cycle of ritual and transformation in the church.  In the life of a Christian, there are two primary times that you will formally walk or be carried down the aisle of the church in the midst of the Christian community.  The first is for baptism.  The entryway into that community, literally reflected at St John’s with the presence of a font by the entry doors.  So each week as you walk into our community, you pass the font as a reminder of who you are – the redeemed of Christ through the waters of baptism.  So time one up the aisle is baptism.

The second primary time you will come up the aisle of the church is for your funeral.  There is a beautiful symmetry here: as you are carried or walk up and down the aisle for your baptism, so to you will be carried up and down the aisle for your funeral.  Entry to the Body of Christ on earth comes through that walk or carry up and down the aisle and the waters of baptism, and entry into God’s everlasting life and departure from this physical life, also comes through a carry up and down the aisle.

You’ve heard Don mention this repeatedly, and this symmetry is the reason that the Prayer Book funeral service is done in the context of a physically present body.  The physicality of the ritual is key to the goal of that ritual, because the transition between physical life here in the midst of we physical creatures, and the life eternal that awaits us on the other side of the veil, is physically reflected in the ritual by the carrying of a body, or at least an urn of ashes, up the aisle, and then down the aisle and out of the church into a place of repose.  So, this beautiful and intentional symmetry in the ritual only reaches full impact with that long walk up the aisle bearing the body of our beloved, and the much longer walk down the aisle to physically lay that beloved to rest.

Ritual is critical to our existence as members of the Body of Christ.  We have lost some of this sense as a by-product of the Enlightenment turn to rationality and away from the mystical. What we lose in that turning away from ritual and the mystical is the ability to immerse ourselves in ritual during times of painful transition.  That path has been walked by many other Christians throughout time and space, and centuries have proven that these rituals are things that allow us to move through times of great change and great sadness.  Don mentioned last week that a funeral service must cover off three critical things: thanksgiving, grief and what comes next.  Ritual is the window that allows us to see what comes next.

This is true of any of the church’s rituals including marriage and baptism, and if you listen to the words that are spoken, and pay careful attention to the how and where that things are done in the church, all of these things point to the question of what comes next.  Every gesture in well-done liturgy has a meaning that ultimately points us back to God.  Baptism is the ritual that takes the person from outside the community, and brings them into the community through water and sets them on the path of life as a believer.  So too, the funeral ritual does two things: brings the deceased into the church to set them on the next stage in their journey, and brings the rest of us who mourn into the church to open for us the understanding that there will be a tomorrow.  It will be a different reality than before, as the one we love is no longer physically here, but it will be a tomorrow in Christ.  So these rituals are intended to be places of profound transformation, where we enter into a literal fogbank of unknowing and unbeing, and emerge out the other side as a transformed believer with an understanding that there is life on the other side of loss.  Ritual provides us a safe space in the midst of community to face the harsh reality of the physical loss of loved one.

I will give you a quick personal example of what I mean.  My mother died in 2011, and I did the funeral service with ashes present.  My step-father insisted on holding on to those ashes, along with the ashes of their two favorite cats, until he died, at which time he wanted the ashes mingled together and then scattered.  In his grief, this was not the time for teaching, and so I left the ashes with him, and didn’t bother explaining that I wouldn’t be mixing his ashes with the cats’.  When my step-father died in 2014, I also performed that funeral service.  We put the ashes into storage until we could coordinate a family reunion when we would scatter those ashes into Lake Winnipeg where my parents had sailed for years.  Now, I understand the physical need for ritual, the importance of having the physical remains present, and I also know very well the spiritual reality that those rituals engage.  So in both cases I did the commendation and the committal, which I will speak about in a minute.  Ritually, I thought that I had completed the symmetry that I’ve spoken about, and was in a place of peace.  When it finally came time to scatter those ashes and I re-said the committal while crouched there on the transom of that boat, I was struck by the profoundness and seriousness of the goodbye that was occurring.  What I realized was that I had not actually completed that full cycle of transformation, and for the almost four years from my mom’s death until those ashes were scattered, I had been stuck in a holding pattern of unresolved loss because the funeral ritual was incomplete.  I had rationalized things in my mind to say that there had been a resolution, but the spiritual reality was much different and I was struck again with that deep sense of loss anew because I had never really completed the beautiful symmetry of the funeral ritual.

This reality should not be a surprise, since Jesus himself said much the same thing.  You might recall the first encounter with the risen Lord in John’s Gospel occurs at the grave with Mary.  When she recognizes Jesus he immediately says to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”  That command, do not cling to me, is a reinforcement of what I’m trying to describe, which is the danger of not allowing the full authority of ritual to bring transformation into a place of grief.  That includes the act of committing the physical remains of a loved one to their resting place at the time of the funeral, and not holding on to them.

So, that beautiful symmetry is also contained within the funeral service.  Don described the arrival at the church, the walking of the coffin or urn up to the front, the funeral service itself, and then the walking out of the church to the cemetery.  Particularly as the processions are happening, the instructions tell us to recite verses as we walk, so that during these crucial transition periods, as we move from home to church with our loved one, and then from church to graveside, you are hearing the blessed assurance of God’s promises:  “I am the resurrection and the life saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”

One other place of symmetry comes in what are the two key letting go moments of the funeral ritual: the committal and the commendation.  Don has discussed the commendation already: this is the place where the minister says on behalf of the community, “…and committing our brother or sister N to thy gracious keeping…”.  This is key moment one, when in the midst of the church community, the community passes responsibility for the soul of the faithful brother or sister into God’s hands by commending the person to God.  The commendation is the first letting go within the funeral rite, and it forms a literal, metaphorical and spiritual releasing of a beloved member of the Body of Christ into a place we do not understand or know about, but which we trust by faith is in the safe keeping of the Father.  This is one of the key purposes of the funeral ritual, is to allow those of us who remain to avoid “holding on to” our beloved who has now departed this mortal life, and the commendation is the first step in that releasing or letting go.

It is entirely appropriate to hold communion as a part of the funeral ritual, and particularly so when the deceased was a member of the community.  Funerals for those from outside the community often skip that part of the ritual, usually (to be frank) because people want to avoid the 30 or 40 minutes it adds to the service length.  But, communion is a physical declaration of the spiritual reality of the Body of Christ, the bread and the wine unifies us as the Body of Christ, the words remind us that the communion also unifies us with Christ in his birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension, and perhaps most importantly in the context of a funeral, reminds us that we are also unified with all the communion of saints, past present and future, including the person who we gather around to mourn.  The communion service as ritual reminds us of who we really are, and that this present brokenness will eventually be consummated by Christ, where there will be no more tears or heartache, and where no one will suffer anymore.

The second key moment of releasing and letting go comes at the graveside, which is where I will now move us on page 602.  After the church service, the remains are processed out of the church to the cemetery.  Again, as the coffin or urn is transitioned from the church to the churchyard, there is a recitation of the key verses of Scripture to continue to remind us that we are part of a greater reality that is beyond our perception.  If you have been through the death of a loved one, you probably don’t remember much of the funeral except for brief flashes here and there.  This fugue of grief does not lesson the importance of these words being spoken.  On some level, even if you do not consciously acknowledge what is being said, your soul hears the words and drinks them in.  It is also key for all the rest of us to hear these words for the grief of the loss of a beloved in Christ impacts the entire community, as it reminds us of our past losses, and the losses that are yet to come.  This is a radical declaration of the different way of the Body of Christ, that we look beyond the things that this world believes are certain, like death being the end of all, to a mystical reality that will see us all unified in One Christ after our death by reason of our One Baptism.

Reading on page 602, we arrive at the graveside.  Now, a word about the commendation.  If you read the rubric instructions at the top, it states “Then, while the earth shall be cast upon the body by some standing by, the Priest shall say…”.  Let us pause here for a moment.  Most gravesides in cemeteries today are prepared for the burial by spreading out artificial grass to cover up the unsightly edge of the hold, and the pile of dirt.  It always appears to me as an attempt to soften the reality of what it is that is being done at graveside, and there is danger in this.  This second key letting go is brought before the mourners as the harsh reality of consigning their beloved’s mortal remains to the earth, and that harsh reality should not be softened by the prettying up of the area.  I performed a funeral with a funeral home that was a well-appointed place, with lots of finery.  On this occasion the funeral director asked if I wanted to use this neat tube tool to scatter earth at the graveside.  I had never seen one of these before, so he explained to me how it worked: In the top was an aspergil, a holy water sprinkler which is used in more traditional services.  The bottom contained a compartment that was filled with black volcanic sand.  With the push of a button when held over the coffin, a neat, clean measure of sand was dispensed with no need to get your hands dirty.

I thanked him for the offer, but said I thought it really important that at least the minister get his hands dirty at the graveside.  When we arrived, to a grave that was nicely prettied up with Astroturf, I had to pull back the plastic turf to get at a handful of earth.  This portion of the funeral is key, and is the reason the instructions tell us that a number of bystanders should cast earth onto the body is because it is difficult to preserve any fantasy about the aftermath of the death of your beloved, when you are physically casting earth from the hole into which they will be lowered onto the top of the casket.  This physical act marks the second key step in that separation, and the fact that it leaves your hand muddied is perhaps equally important.  Christ returns to see the disciples with the marks of the crucifixion still plainly apparent on his body.  In death, the dirt acknowledges that we have been marked by this passing. While the mud we will eventually wash off, it stands for a moment as a physical signpost that things have changed in an irreversible (at least in the view of this world) manner.  Listen to what is spoken as we cast dirt upon the body:  “Forasmuch as is hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to receive unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed: we therefore commit his body to the ground earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, though our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our mortal body, that it may be like unto his glorious body, according to the might working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.”  Subdue all things to himself, including subduing death.

Notice something important in the form of this service, which is no provision for keeping back a physical portion of the deceased – indeed the symmetry of the ritual demands that there be a complete letting go of connection to the physical.  This is the way of the Body of Christ.  Contrary to that is the way of the world.  Funeral homes now offer a whole line of jewelry and ornaments that allow you to preserve a portion of ashes, and to distribute these to family members.  You can also have the cremated ashes converted into a diamond, which can then be set into a ring or necklace.  This is not a spiritually healthy thing to do.  As I related in my personal account of scattering my parent’s ashes, the delay in formally declaring that committal and commendation, and in passing on those physical remains to a resting place, also delays our ability to live fully into the promises of Christ.  I was stuck in an only partial goodbye, because I had unfinished business that my spirit knew, even if my rational mind did not.  In fact, until we fully release our dead into Christ’s care, we also fail to release ourselves into that same care.  And so we are called to turn away from the physical comforts of this world, to the eternal and mystical promises of Christ.

What follows is a final prayer which is sometimes called the second commendation, or the final commendation.  We once again underline the finality of the physical transformation, and point ourselves to the hope of the resurrection.  It is interesting that the prayer does not begin with supplication for the deceased.  Rather it begins with a prayer for those who are standing around the finality of mortal life, a prayer that we are, “not to be sorry, as men without hope, for them that sleep in Jesus: We meekly beseech thee, O Father, to raise us from the death of sin unto the life of righteousness; that, when we shall depart this life, we may rest in him, as our hope is this our brother doth; and that, at the Resurrection in the last day, we with him may receive that blessing…”.  The final prayer turns the funeral ritual back to our present reality, and again outlines the promise of Christ, not for the deceased, but for those of us who remain and mourn.

This brings the symmetry of the funeral ritual to a close, and leaves us in a good starting place to begin to deal with the grief of loss.  We are not to behave as those without hope but rather as those who trust in the real and very physical resurrection that is to come.

What does this all mean for us in how we conduct our funeral rituals?  Fundamentally, we are about different stuff than the culture, and the funeral ritual brings us through from the undoing of our world, to a place where life begins to look like a future possibility.  Out of literal dust and ashes, we have eternity reaffirmed as the ultimate vanishing point for the Christian.  The ritual allows us to follow Jesus’ command to Mary, that we not hold on to those who have not yet ascended to the Father.  Through the ritual we make two principle affirmations of that transition, through the commendation of the soul to God, and through the committal of the earthly remains to a resting place.  Both of these passing away moments help us to cut the earthly ties we so badly want to hold.  Finally, the ritual reminds us that while we may in the midst of ashes right now, we are to look ahead to a time without weeping or dying.  That transition requires us to physically let go of earthly remains, which means not holding on to ashes for any extended period.

Written by sameo416

March 5, 2016 at 2:12 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

On death at the graveside

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Preparing for tomorrow’s reflection on the ritual of Christian burial after the Book of Common Prayer, and specifically that portion of the service that occurs at the graveside.

Came across a wonderful line from Coleridge, in the preface to the Lyrical Ballads, where he discusses the purpose of poetry:

…and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.

And this second verse from William Blake’s poem, “The Little Black Boy”:

And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love,
And these black bodies and this sun-burnt face
Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.

 

Both reflect on the nature of life on earth.  Coleridge focuses on ‘the film of familiarity’ that prevents us from seeing the ‘loveliness and the wonders’ that exist all around us, indeed the delight of God’s creation that is here for our joy, but that we see so rarely because we are caught in the cycle of all-purpose (from an article by Brother David Steindl-Rast).

St John of Damascus (Orthodox funeral service)

Where is now our affection for earthly things? Where is now the alluring pomp of transient questing? Where is now our gold, and our silver? Where is now the surging crowd of domestics, and their busy cries? All is dust, all is ashes, all is shadow. Wherefore draw near that we may cry to our immortal King, “Lord, Your everlasting blessings vouchsafe unto him (her) that now has gone away. bringing him (her) to repose in that blessedness which never grows old.”

I Called to mind the Prophet who shouted, “I am but earth and ash.” And once again I looked with attention on the tombs, and I saw the bones therein which of flesh were naked; and I said, “Which indeed is he that is king? Or which is soldier? Which is the wealthy, which the needy? Which the righteous, or which the sinner?” But to Your servant, O Lord, grant that with the righteous he (she) may repose.

More to follow…

Written by sameo416

March 5, 2016 at 9:26 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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