Eastertide is a good time to think about death. “I am the resurrection and the life.” are words from S. John’s Gospel which should begin any church funeral. They are the words of Our Lord – and are often drowned out by Frank Sinatra singing “I did it my way.” on the P.A. system. (What an anthem to selfishness that is! How about seeking to do it God’s way?)
Last week, I attended the funeral of a friend’s mother at Bucknall Parish Church. She would have been ninety-seven four days after the funeral. A former member of the RAF and, in her middle years, the receptionist at a GP’s surgery in Bucknall. Unusually for one of such great age, the church was full. Equally, unusual was the volume of sound as we sang, among other hymns, “THine be the glory”. The rector, The Rev’d. David Street, preached an excellent sermon which included details of the deceased’s life and also made clear the Gospel message – including the judgement of God. Although her daughter is a committed Christian and, I think, worships at the church, I believe that the deceasaed was a non-churchgoing Christian.
These days people seem to assume that you can’t be a believer without going to church. While finding it difficult to understand why people don’t go to church while still believing in the Lord, I can see why they don’t go, especially if the receiving of Holy Communion is not considered essential. Perhaps it is easier for catholic Christians (including Anglicans) because we believe that the bread and wine become, through the actions and words of the priest, the Body and Blood of the Lord. Jesus, in another part of S. John’s Gospel, said, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you do not have my life in you.” In Matthew, Mark, and Luke he says, “Take, eat. This is my body broken for you… my blood poured out for you.” The fact is that church can be very dull and there is always the danger (as I wrote last month) of judging what is going on by the sermon, the prayers, the music etc. Last Sunday, I sang in a choir at a cathedral where the celebrant was a woman priest. Being compromised by the situation, I attended an evening mass at my sister’s local Roman Catholic church. While not being able to receive Holy Communion, I was able to be present at the offering of Christ by a priest. It mattered not one jot how entertaining or enjoyable the celebration was.
I digress. Back to the subject of funerals. The friend’s mother could have had a funeral at the crematorium. Had the family not had any religion (like so many) they could have responded to the funeral director’s question “Did your mother believe in God?” with a negative. They may not have even known that she said her prayers – or not, as the case may be. Many people belong to an age when beliefs, prayer-life, sex-life are not for public discussion. Very often, it is the lack of belief of the family which can dictate what happens at the funeral. I know many priests who have had to battle with families to get the deceased churchgoer a Christian funeral.
Fortunately, in this case, the family knew exactly what was the right thing to do. It was a community funeral, celebrated in the community, by the community and by the community priest. The funeral was full of resurrection hope and a call to discipleship. Wonderful. It was a far cry from a modern trend of pushing a funeral into a corner. I understand “no flowers” but not “no people” or, indeed, “no body”. How far we have come from the funeral in Ghana I attended – where the whole community gathered together – and a number of that community helped to carry the coffin to the grave, bury it, and fill the grave in. The fact that the grave was too small and needed a bit of on-the-spot digging only added to the sense of celebration. Tears and laughter mingled together as we sorted the situation out.
So – bring the resurrection of the Lord into your funeral celebrations. Let the Lord’s triumph over death and sin be seen in the way you respond to death as well as life. When you come to the fortieth day of Eastertide, celebrate the Lord’s ascension with style. I no longer worry about how He returned to His Father, even the Scriptures have differing accounts. What is important is that the Lord has completed his sacrifice, his self-offering which began at His incarnation, His conception in the womb of Mary, reached its climax in His death on Calvary, and its culmination in the Ascension when He takes His humanity (our humanity) with the marks of the nails and spear into the heavenly realm.
Every blessing for the rest of Eastertide. No fasting is allowed. No nonsense about dry this and vegetarian that.