In favor of the body

Friday, March 7, 2014

Today I went to another funeral (this seems to be one of my favorite subjects). It was extremely moving. I want to say a bit about it without intruding on the memory of a faithful Christian.

There were only a handful of people present, because the deceased woman had been homebound for a long time and many people who had known her had moved away. However, the service was conducted with as much dignity and attention to detail as if the service had been for a young person with hundreds of mourners. The organist played Bach with great feeling as if there had been a large congregation. The only speaker was the clergyman, and (like the funeral I wrote about in a previous post) he managed to combine the gospel message with a vivid and loving evocation of the person herself. He told us some things that perhaps we did not all know; she kept in close touch with events in the congregation and continued to follow the liturgical year. He told us that the four-foot baptismal candle, burning nearby, had been given by her some years before, in memory of her parents. I thought about that, and how these memorials come to mean more and more to us as we grow older and begin to think about what is really important.

Even though the congregation was tiny, we sang “Ye holy angels bright” at the conclusion of the service. What wonderful words! I was particularly moved by this because the first time I ever sang that hymn was at the funeral of my great-aunt, when I was in my late 20s. I had never heard it before that occasion. As we sang today, I was really quite taken aback by the depth of my feelings about this link to my great-aunt. She was an amusing, lively little old lady and I was very fond of her, but she was an incorrigible snob (typical Virginian!) and utterly indifferent to the plight of the black people back in the 60s. The thing about her that remains with me is her strong Christian faith and her determination that faith should be the significant defining trait of our family. To this end she gave a wall plaque to Christ Church, Charlottesville, listing our ancestors, and at the bottom the words, “These kept the faith.” I think that’s why I found myself so moved to be singing  “her” hymn in another funeral setting many decades later. All of us must come, in the end, as sinners to dust and ashes, yet justified by grace, through faith.

At the service today, it was particularly striking that the body was present at the church. This is so rare now, unfortunately. The coffin was covered with the brocade church pall, and rested at the head of the aisle where we all passed it going and coming from communion. The clergyman said the beautiful prayer of commendation over it, as is intended by the liturgy. The woman who had died was not particularly old (younger than me, anyway), but over the years she had lost much of her bodily functioning and was somewhat misshapen. It was deeply significant that her body should have been present as we confessed “the resurrection of the body.” Bodily life matters. It is the only life that we know in this world. The promise of the gospel is that “we shall be raised incorruptible” in a body still recognizable as ours. How this can be, St. Paul could not say–though he made a stab at it in I Corinthians 15–but that we will be raised as our bodily selves he was certain, as the Holy Spirit gave him utterance. “The trumpet shall sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”  We shall be changed “into His likeness.”

May the God who raised Jesus from the dead raise us also with Jesus and bring us all together into his presence. (II Corinthians 4:14) The saying is sure.

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