At this time of year, it strikes me even more forcefully that we, the Church, have something to say at the time of the death of one of our own, and that God has something to say to us, and it's more than whether this was a nice guy, or whether she liked to quilt, or how much they partied. The Church, in our funeral liturgy, is celebrating one overarching reality: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We have a story to tell. It's a story in which each of us is deeply invested. And yet, when it comes to funeral homilies, my experience has been that it is rarely proclaimed, but rather that the homilies tend to be a melange of kitschy Hallmark-style sympathies, anecdotes of the deceased's life gleaned from family members, and highly personal fables about the enduring presence of the deceased when we "give them back to God."
St. Paul, in the letter to the Romans read every year on the Vigil of Easter, has a very different take on it:
Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ JesusIn other words, the Christian has already died on the day of her baptism. From that day on, death had no more power over her. The Christian died in the water with Christ, and rose to a new life, a new identity, living no longer as self, but as Christ. From that moment, the Christian walked as a sacrament of the invisible God. The homilist ought to look for the kind of evidence in a person's life that would make this proclamation visible. More importantly, this proclamation ought to be directed at changing the life of every person in the hearing of his voice. Death is the one thing that we're all afraid of. Death is the one idol we can't shake, the one against whom we hedge our bets, storing up this, hoarding that, spending our money, the sacrament of our time and living, shoring up our defenses against its ravages. Yet, for all that, death has no power over us. "Christ has conquered. Glory fills you. Sound the trumpet of salvation."
were baptized into his death?
We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death,
so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead
by the glory of the Father,
we too might live in newness of life.
For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his,
we shall also be united with him in the resurrection…
If, then, we have died with Christ,
we believe that we shall also live with him.
We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more;
death no longer has power over him.
As to his death, he died to sin once and for all;
as to his life, he lives for God.
Consequently, you too must think of yourselves as being dead to sin
and living for God in Christ Jesus.
Even so, it is true that baptism happens to us, generally, at a very early age, and it takes a lifetime for us to be conformed, slowly, invisibly at times, to the image of Christ, and it's an image to which we are never perfectly sculpted. God's invitation in baptism to reimagine and recreate the world as God's empire, as a place of peace and equality, is not coerced. We aren't pushed into collaboration with God's effort, just invited, over and over again, invisibly. So it seems to me that part of the church's evangelical effort is to keep that proclamation alive, to look for the signs of it in our common life in our micro and macro communities, and hold us together in hope as we try to allow ourselves to be shaped by God's paradigm, Christ Jesus, crucified and risen.
Sometimes I wonder if we as a Church have lost our faith, that in fact we don't believe in a resurrection, in a new life that happens now, and that we just do the best we can to stumble through this life until we can just go to sleep forever. It seems like the world could genuinely be changed if it witnessed people who lived for each other because they were unconcerned about losing themselves, about preserving their ephemeral identity, because they knew they were part of Christ, a new reality anointed by God's Spirit to radiate the divine life in the world.
We don't know what happens after death. I, for one, don't care. What my faith is, is that God saved Jesus Christ from death, and that like all my brothers and sisters in faith I was baptized into that death, and that I can die no more. What that means is yet to be revealed. I don't always live like that faith is in my bones, I know. But it does change my reality here and now, it changes the way I see this world. It changes the way I use my life, my time, my money, my vote, advocacy.
In these November days of remembering, particularly on this cold, funeral-bound Tuesday, tossed in a spiritual cloud that hopes with the Maccabbees for a resurrection to a joyful physical life that is at least as wonderful as this one, that mourns with the thousands whose homes and hopes were flattened by the typhoon in the South Pacific, and that listens to the Savior's message to be unafraid in the face of the savagery of all this death, I can't help but be caught up in these sobering but ultimately joyful thoughts. I would like the words of remembrance at my funeral to sound like the witness of godparents at the rite of election. "Once in a while," let someone say, necessarily with brevity, "he got out of God's way, and there was light that shone through his life. Once in a while, I could see better in that light." And there would be something concrete and honest to illustrate that outrageous claim. And in that minute, some unseen hand will roll a stone back from the tomb just a centimeter, and the axis of the world will shift a little. I wish the same for you. Do not be afraid.