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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Death still stings; Life, where is your song?


If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. 
(Rom 6:8, Epistle at the Easter Vigil)
Dali, "Christ of St. John"
I’ve had four or five funerals so far since Easter (I'm sure that many of you have had more—I’m not looking for sympathy!). I can’t help but think that somehow we’ve failed people by not really believing and proclaiming our faith in a cogent way throughout the year.  I don’t see how we’ve helped people really connect with the meaning of their baptism, its relationship to both life and death, in our weekly celebration of the paschal mystery and most explicitly at Easter time. This is just a feeling, but it’s borne out in a few observations.

First, in none of these funeral liturgies was there a single Easter hymn, or hymn about resurrection, included in the mix, except in the one where I was asked to choose the closing hymn. One would imagine that, at least, having been part of the Easter celebrations, the Easter gospel of the Church would ring out in the song of the saints left behind. But that is not the case. It was the same usual mix of nostalgic and comforting hymns one might hear at a funeral at any time of year. In a sense, this is good: we give people what they need in hard times, a safe place of comfort. As a church musician, though, and someone who looks for signs of grains of wheat sprouting, I wonder whether our Easter repertoire might be anemic, or spiritually dissonant and disconnected from the rest of life. I wonder whether fifty-two Sundays a year are genuinely Easter written upon the week, so that there is clarity about the "great hope to which we are called" in the resurrection. 

Second, the church’s personal proclamation to the families of the deceased, in the priest’s homily, often is more eulogic than kerygmatic. We literally hear things said like, “We come to celebrate, not his/her death, but the gift that was his life (emphasis mine.)” Or, and this is worse, "Your beloved N. will not die as long as we remember her/him." Is that the sum of what we have to tell the families, Christian and non-Christian, of a deceased member of the baptized community? Does it all really boil down to memory, and if we just remember this person’s quirks and good humor, remember their life as a thing of the past they’ll never die? I hope not! 

We once had an associate at St. Anne who would without fail proclaim at every funeral that the deceased had died a long time ago, in baptism, and from that day had nothing ever to fear from death again. This is the beginning of the Christian proclamation about death. What is left for us to do, it seems to me, as ministers of the church in the hour death, is to remind everyone what God is doing in us by plunging us into the paschal mystery. We died to ourselves, that is, as isolated persons, at the moment of baptism. It had nothing to do with what we wanted, it was chosen for us by God. We were incorporated into Christ, who dies no more. We live no longer for ourselves, but for him. The homilist’s task, it seems to me, is to exhort the living to be more aware of this, to rejoice in hope that God, as Psalm 16 says, will “not allow his faithful to undergo corruption,” and that we ought to live day in and day out and sons and daughters of God, brothers and sisters of the Risen One. The family’s task, in the words of remembrance, is to witness to God’s work in the person’s life. Not to eulogize, but to say, "Here’s how my mother / friend / child made the love of God visible to people; here’s how I know that God lives, even now, in her." Isn’t this really what we need to be saying? Don’t “even the Gentiles” mourn their dead with fond memories and noble words? What difference does Christ make to us? What difference that we were baptized?

All of this is not the fault of the bereaved, who have enough on their plates with grief and the funerary business. But it tells me that we’re missing the mark somehow in our weekly proclamation of the meaning of Easter. We are intimately involved in the life of God who is the God of life. Baptism has incorporated us into Christ by pouring into us the Spirit that makes “messiah / Christ”, and that our daily lives are meant to be about singing a new song, turning away from the sin represented by the empires of this world, and believing in and living for a different world, the empire of God. It tells me that we ought to be more explicit in our weekly proclamation of the meaning of the gospel, clearer about our identity, positive and affirming about the truth of life-in-the-midst-of-death even as we do not deny the reality of death and the devastation it wreaks on our personal delusions of immortality.

It’s that brush I’d like to see applied to the funeral mass and its music, not in an artificial way, but organically, letting it be as natural to us as Christians as, well, attending mass on Sunday. It’s a dream, I know, but it doesn’t seem out of reach. We just have to believe it, and act like it matters.