"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

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.

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Written by sameo416

March 5, 2016 at 2:12 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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