Comfortable Words

It may seem morbid or a sign of the slow decay of Episcopal relevance, but I am of the opinion that the Burial Office is the best thing the Episcopal Church has to offer the world.    Its language is beautiful, though I think those who find the pronoun usage in the various anthems to be troublesome have a salient argument.  It balances well the tendency to err too far to one side or the other between “this should only be about Jesus” and “this should only be about the deceased.”  Even the rubrics, which yes, we should read and abide by, help make an Episcopal burial service an opportunity for reflection, prayer, and celebration.  For example, the requirement that the coffin “be covered with a pall or other suitable covering” ensures that whether prince of pauper, every soul buried from the church is brought in under the cover of their baptismal gown.  As and aside, for which I am well known, I have seen, on occasion, the use of the Episcopal or American flag as “other suitable covering”  I can understand the impetus for this, but would argue against so as to expand beyond “prince and pauper” to include “priest and solider” as well.  All are the same in death, for, as Paul writes to the Christians in Rome, “whether we live or, therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s.”

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Astronaut Gene Cernan’s burial at St. Martin’s Church, Houston, TX. Note the pall covering his coffin

If you were reading Sunday’s New Testament lesson and the middle portion sounded familiar to you, it is probably because you have attended an Episcopal Burial service sometime since 1979.  Romans 14:7-8 is an option among four anthems in both the Rite I and Rite II services.  Often strung together as one long anthem, said in procession, these words at the opening of the Burial Office set the tone for the rest of the service to follow.  These are words of comfort.  These are words of hope.  These are words of resurrection.  These are, in the parlance of our Rite I Eucharist, “Comfortable Words” meant to place the hearts and minds of the bereaved in the hands of the resurrected Lord through whom we all have access to the Kingdom.

In a world that seems to be disintegrating around us, these words might come just at the right time this Sunday.  With a major earthquake in Mexico, the 16th anniversary  of 9/11, Charlottesville, and Hurricanes Harvey and Irma weighing heavy on our hearts, it seems prudent that we hear these words from Paul and have the Burial Office brought to mind.  In the same way that, in death, all of us come to the altar under the garment of baptism, so too, in life, we are all here on earth because of the gift and grace of God.  As Fitzmeyer puts it in his Anchor Bible Commentary, “This passage implies the service of God in all things, and it is the basis of life in the true Christian sense.  In life and in death, the Christ exists to Kyrio, i.e. to praise, honor, and serve God” (p. 691).  So, whether we feast or fast, whether we keep the Kalendar or honor everyday as a Feria from God, our lives are to be lived under the banner of our baptism, to the honor and glory of God.

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