Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Clothed in Glory - Christian Funerals

This article by Diana Macalintal originally appeared in Pastoral Music, Vol. 30, No. 3. The issue focused on the "threshold rites," those celebrations in which the doorway of the Church is an integral element of the rite.

About one hundred of us stood in the abbey church’s vestibule which also served as the baptistery. The iron figure of John the Baptist stood guard at the font to welcome us. The monks of the abbey entered silently one by one from the various doorways, their brown robes forming an earthly womb encircling the font. Then they began to chant: “You formed me from the earth, you clothed me with flesh; Lord my Redeemer, raise me up on the last day” (Ps 139; Job 10:8-12; 19:25). Several monks entered carrying the simple pine coffin hewn by one of their own which held the body of their brother in faith. They laid their brother down by the doors leading into the main body of the church as the monk’s family followed close behind. “My being thirsts for God, the living God. When can I go and see the face of God?” (Ps 42).

Taking water from the font, the priest showered the coffin with holy water, calling his brother monk by name, recalling his death and re-birth in those same waters. The monk’s family did the same, tracing wet crosses into the wood with their fingers. Several of the monk’s students billowed a white sheet over the coffin, clothing him once again in his baptismal garment. “You formed me from the earth, you clothed me with flesh; Lord my Redeemer, raise me up on the last day.”

Led by incense, Paschal candle, cross, and Gospel Book, the circle of monks processed into the church as the sound of the organ and the familiar refrain of the funeral hymn filled the space: “I know that my Redeemer lives, that I shall rise again.” As they crossed the main doors, they passed the body of their brother. Some touched the coffin as they walked by, others bowed low down before it, still others stooped to kiss it. “I went in procession with the crowd. I went with them to the house of God, amid loud cries of thanksgiving, with the multitude keeping festival” (Ps 42). The choir’s verses danced around the refrain we knew by heart. As the last of the monks entered the church, we followed the family who lifted up the coffin to carry their brother home. “Open the gates of victory; I will enter and thank the Lord!” (Ps 118).

Death is the Doorway

For the Christian, the body is a primary symbol. It images Christ, the Head, the Church, the Body, and bread and wine as Body and Blood shared. At the beginning of the Christian’s life, this fragile yet resilient body is signed, washed, anointed, and fed. Throughout its lifetime, this body is forgiven, joined to other bodies, given a new identity and mission, and healed in sickness. It is through the body that we express and interpret meaning. It is our bodies that place us in history, allow us to relate and connect, and make us recognizable to each other. It is through our bodies that we encounter and embody Christ.

Yet “while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord” (2 Cor 5:6), and in the “tent” of our bodies, “we groan, longing to be further clothed with our heavenly habitation” (2 Cor 5:2). Thus, our entire life is a pilgrimage with the Body of Christ on the way to its heavenly home.

This homecoming begins with the question, “What is your name and what do you ask of the Church?” With these words at the doors of the church, we greet infants and those to be catechumens. With great reverence we sign their bodies with the cross, marking them as the passageway for knowing Christ. However, the way we best know Christ is by doing what Christ did—die, and the way home is through death’s doorway—baptism.

In baptism, we are clothed in the eternal life of Christ precisely by immersing ourselves into his death. If we believe this, then “[t]he paradox of Christianity is that we are a people who have confronted death and survived it….What would it mean to live with death behind us? What would it mean to be already living life-after-death, the life of the world to come?” (Mark Searle, “Sunday: The Heart of the Liturgical Year,” The Church Gives Thanks and Remembers: Essays on the Liturgical Year, ed. Lawrence J. Johnson, The Liturgical Press, 1984, p. 26.).

It would mean that our life becomes a series of “passovers” in which we practice Christ’s dying and rising, each day leaning more and more how to die to ourselves so that others may live. We are daily becoming baptized, living a “continual conversion to Christ and an ongoing initiation into the celebration of the sacraments and the life of Church (National Directory for Catechesis, 35D).

Therefore, at the final “passover,” when a Christian dies and the body no longer has life in it, we gather again at the doors where it all began, to mark the completion of their baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ.

In the Order of Christian Funerals, the body’s sacredness and its consecration in baptism are particular elements in the Rite of Reception of the Body. We find baptismal reminders in the ritual actions of sprinkling with holy water (83), placing of the pall on the coffin (84), presenting the Easter candle near the body (85), and placing of the cross, Book of Gospels, or Bible upon the coffin (86).

These signs also recall that in life and death the baptized are one with the communion of saints, for “[t]he assembly that welcomes the body is the host community tracing its unbroken line to the assembly of the Apostles. Here, the communion of saints is made visible” (Richard Rutherford with Tony Barr, The Death of a Christian: The Order of Christian Funerals, The Liturgical Press, 1990, p. 181). Therefore the music that accompanies the entrance procession is truly a gathering song that unites all the faithful into the household of God. A litany of saints may be a simple way to gather a varied community in song. Other appropriate gathering songs may come from psalms that hearken to baptism (42, 63) or longing for God’s house (84, 118, 122).

Though the rubrics do not call for music during the reception of the body or for the gathering of the assembly at the doors, it may be comforting to the family to enter not an empty vestibule but one filled with song and the familiar faces of friends. For just as the church sings at the beginning of a Christian’s life and gathers to meet her at the doors, so too might it gather around that same body and sing its welcome at the end of that life.

The Empty Tomb

As important as the body is to our Christian life, death teaches us to let go of the body. Describing the passage of faith required of the disciples who searched for the dead Jesus in the tomb, theologian Louis-Marie Chauvet explains: “You cannot arrive at the recognition of the risen Jesus unless you renounce seeing/touching/finding him by undeniable proofs” (The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body, The Liturgical Press, 2001, p. 25). In other words, we must let go of the corpse in order to recognize the resurrection of the body.

This final letting go begins at the end of the funeral liturgy with the final commendation and concludes at the place of committal with customary signs of leave-taking. This last ritual “passover” on the journey home is the final threshold that not only the deceased but also the living must cross. Here, “the community acknowledges the reality of separation and commends the deceased to God. In this way it recognizes the spiritual bond that still exists between the living and the dead and proclaims its belief that all the faithful will be raised up and reunited…” (OCF, 6).

One of the most significant moments of leave-taking is so profound that it must be sung. The song of farewell, one of the funeral rite’s most ancient texts, is the faithful’s communal “goodbye.” It is not a song of sorrow but of hope and a blessing upon the deceased’s final journey which she takes not alone but accompanied by the saints and angels. The significance of this song is best expressed by singing it as its own ritual action and not as an accompaniment to the sprinkling and incensing of the coffin. In addition, it should be a song that all the faithful can sing easily and well. Many settings of the various texts of farewell (OCF, 403) have been composed using familiar tunes, such as OLD HUNDRETH and LONDONDERRY AIR. Other settings, such as John Becker’s “Litany for a Funeral Procession” (Oregon Catholic Press), use a litanic structure to enable fuller participation by the assembly regardless of their familiarity with the music. Becker’s litany also works well as a song accompanying the procession to the place of committal. If the litany of saints was not sung earlier, it might accompany this last procession to the deceased’s final rest.

Waiting in Joyful Hope

We are a people who live constantly in that doorway between death and eternal life. We stand in the advent-time of the kingdom here but not yet. The baptism that clothes us in Christ is a foretaste of the day when we shall be clothed in the fullness of Christ’s glory. Yet the rituals that we lavish upon the bodies of the faithful in both life and death are not meant to keep us wrapped up in complacency. Rather, the finery we wear are the brand marks of Christ crucified that compel us to rise up in action, announcing what we have seen and heard and touched. In this, we shall become more like Christ, we who are “configured to Christ’s death and resurrection, formed in Christ’s likeness until the day when Christ is formed in us” (Lumen gentium 7).