Sunday, April 12, 2009

Reflections on Holy Saturday near to its doctrinal themes.

In the west of the U.S.A. there seems to be a running together of the Christian Burial Office and a general funeral. This has been encouraged by the caring, therapeutic, hospital, and funeral directors, in the context of a secularized culture. Practically, it means that death is the culmination of a period of being kept without pain and in as much comfort as possible with the promise to some of remission.

Historically and biblically the Burial Office is primarily about the Gospel of Jesus Christ and secondarily about the person who has died because God is the God of the living and the dead. The proclamation is of the Christian hope of the resurrection of the dead and of life everlasting in the perfect Kingdom of God. And the deceased is commended within that living hope. Often a memorial service relating to the buried deceased is held days or weeks after the funeral burial service.

What are the chief features of the Christian Burial Office in the classic Anglican Prayer Books up to the modern era?

1. At the service there is always the body of the deceased unless he has been lost at sea. There can be no burial office without a body. (Today at funeral services such is very uncommon. The presence of a body or cremated remains are very rare, and are usually found in the funeral director’s establishment.)

2. The Burial Office may be held in church followed by interment in a burial ground, or it may take place wholly in a burial ground; or it may begin in the home and end in the burial ground. (The modern funeral is usually only in the church and is a mixed liturgy of burial and memorial.)

3. The natural expression of the mourners is that of the Psalms which were the prayers of Jesus, and these can be said or sung before and after the burial office. (In contrast in modern funerals any preferred music may be used.)

4. Central to the Christian Burial Office is the reading of the hope from the New Testament and no sermon is required for the Scripture is intended to be clear in and of itself. (Sometimes sermons are preached at the Burial Office and seem always to be preached at the modern funeral service.)

5. Also integral to the Christian Burial Office is the Collect which, though longish, sets out the Christian hope with power and clarity.( In contrast, modern Christian funeral substitutes Collects of choice.)

6. Absolutely integral to the Christian Burial Office is the final Commendation where the recognition of the separation of soul and body is acknowledged and both are commended to the care of God until they are reunited as one in the great Resurrection of the Last Day: when all diseases and sicknesses and maladies shall be eliminated everlastingly. (In contrast, for many modern funerals the celebration of the person in this life and this only is in view.)

7. In the Burial Office the service at the graveside must end with the anthem: I heard a voice from heaven, saying unto me, Write, From henceforth blessed are the dead which die in the Lord: even so saith the Spirit; for they rest from their labours.

What a vast difference! And regrettably even as churches have changed their doctrine of Baptism to make it a commitment only to peace and justice in this world, they have changed their final service for Christians by making it into a celebration of life in this world!

Saturday April 11, 2009
The Rev. Dr. Peter Toon

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