Sunday, March 21, 2010
If you can't get rid of it, celebrate it...
Now the rub. First of all, last time I had spoken to his individual he was a Christian -- though no mention of this appeared in this death notice and description of the "arrangements." Second, this person died an agonizing death to cancer and, although I do not have proof, I am certain that he did not love and relish every moment of his life. In fact, I know that his last days were tormented by pain that was only slightly relieved by massive doses of pain medication. Third, if all we have to hold on to when death claims someone we love are a few laughs, well that is pretty sad and no laughing matter at all. Finally, in the hour of death we do not need a celebration of life. No, we need the promise of life given to us in the wood of the cross and the hollow sound of an empty tomb. We need that life sealed to our own lives in baptism where we died with Christ and rose with Him to new life. We need not a celebration of life but the voice of the Gospel to speak in the midst of death's darkness, pain, and sorrow.
There was a time when I really appreciated the move from the black paraments of a funeral and the requiem aspect of the service to its predominant theme of resurrection and life in Christ. I thought the move to white paraments (the color of Easter) was a good and needful way to highlight the connection between the rite of Christian burial and our own joyful resurrection with Jesus Christ. I guess I still do except that I am not so sure that this is what people are getting from this shift.
In an ancient time when paraments and vestments were black, the seriousness of death was clearly acknowledged. Death is no friend to us but always the enemy. Now the surprise of grace is that God makes it possible even for an enemy to do His bidding. In this case, death's end becomes the gate or door to life everlasting through our Lord Jesus Christ. But this does not erase or diminish death's terrible reality. Death is still contrary to God's good will and gracious purpose. Maybe we need to go back to black to remind people that death is not the final stage of life.
And then there is this business of [name] would not have wanted... In this case the man was a retired church worker. He spent nearly all his adult life serving the Lord in the Church. Yet even this does not give us the right to decide how our death will be treated by those who survive us. I do not really care what he would have wanted. This man was a child of God in Christ -- the identity that trumps all other identities for those who are baptized and believe. What he would have wanted is not the issue but how the Church leads us through death to life in Christ through the funeral liturgy. Besides, he would have wanted not to die this painful death. That is what he would have wanted. Since he died this painful death, the least we can do is dignify this death by acknowledging its painful reality AND the answer to death which is Jesus Christ and His resurrection.
Let me end with this crap about a celebration of life or of his life. This is silliness. Yes, of course, there is a place for and it is highly important for the grieving family and friends to gather and speak together in remembrance of the deceased. But this is not the last word we speak or surely we will have hoped as those who have no hope and will grieve as those who have no prospect of life and eternity. A happy memory cannot erase the pain of death or close its mortal wound. Only the Gospel can speak hope to those who gather to remember someone whom death has stolen from them. Only the proclamation of Jesus Christ, His death and resurrection, can speak the Word that makes a difference to tears and broken hearts. Yes, happy memories are a gift from God and a wonderful gift at that... but this is not what we hang our hopes on at the brink of death and the grave. There has to be more.
It is not a celebration of his life but a celebration of HIS life (Christ's) that must be spoken. Remember and recall, rejoice and laugh, cry and commiserate... this is what we do when death comes too near to us... but this cannot replace the answer to death which God has given to us in His Son... nosiree...
It may be comforting on one level to surround the casket with things that relate to that person's life, but the whole point of the shift from black to white was to focus on the clothing of Christ's righteousness which enables us to stand before the Lord and be welcomed by Him into the resurrection and eternity. A couple of fishing rods or his Harley-Davidson or some other ornament related to his past has only the power to turn us to yesterday... but the Gospel spoken and the ritual of the Christian funeral point us toward the eternal tomorrow which is ours in Christ... and it is to this mercy that we Christians commend those whom we love... and nothing less!