I hadn’t watched the ceremony myself. I am usually a sucker for these occasions and have a historians obsession with interpreting detail, but I myself had been at a funeral this afternoon. It was a devout Catholic lady in her 80’s, a remarkable mother and grandmother who had raised her five children alone after her husband had died when they were still very young. She was an avid reader of Commonweal and America and never backed down in an argument even with a priest, especially with a priest. To argue her faith was life-giving to her and she knew her points well. She was an active member of her parish, a rather feisty old broad actually, who drove past 7 other Catholic Churches to get to the parish to which she belonged because she liked the preaching and the music in what had been years before a “Real Vatican II: parish.” But there was something wrong about the tone of the funeral: it was a “celebration of her life” but I am not sure it was a proclamation of the Gospel. I think the current funeral liturgy somehow or other misses the point. It is a bland service—granted, with plenty of options of readings and music—but at the end of the day it is, well, bland.
On the other hand I remember the old pre-Vatican II funeral Mass where flowers were removed from the altar, clergy wore black vestments, and the coffin, surrounded by orange candles in black stands, lay before the closed gates of the sanctuary as the organist sang (in Latin, thankfully):
Day of wrath and doom impending,
David’s word with Sibyl’s blending,
Heaven and earth in ashes ending.
O what fear man’s bosom rendeth,
When from heaven the Judge descendeth,
On whose sentence all dependeth.
Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth,
Through earth’s sepulchers it ringeth,
All before the throne it bringeth.
Death is struck, and nature quaking,
All creation is awaking,
To its Judge an answer making.
Lo, the book exactly worded,
Wherein all hath been recorded,
Thence shall judgment be awarded.
When the Judge His seat attaineth,
And each hidden deed arraigneth,
Nothing unavenged remaineth.
What shall I, frail man, be pleading?
Who for me be interceding
When the saints are mercy needing?
It was a pretty frightful scene. The deceased stood at the gates of judgment awaiting sentence for a lifetime of crime. Actually, to the ten year old I was at the time I first heard it, it was sort of fun—like mixing Church and Halloween.
Of course there are those who see everything in terms of the “four last things”—death, judgment, heaven and hell. And I think we need to keep those four last things in mind daily but I don’t think our faith in the Resurrection of Christ—and our resurrection in him—should be obscured in any way by a view of God that seems ultimately to be a judge and we as standing at his tribunal. Jesus “doesn’t go there” in the Gospels. (The closest is the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 and it has a far more balanced tone.) But there are Catholics who do see things that way, in fact there are Christians who see things that way, but it is ultimately more a matter for some collaboration between one’s spiritual director and one’s mental health worker.
Frankly, however, I have had enough of this happy-clappy Christianity that has taken the teeth of out discipleship. In regards to the rituals surrounding death I think we need some further reform to focus us on the solid questions with which our faith presents us. It may be more a matter of ritual than homiletics—though I find most funeral sermons to be appallingly saccharine and theologically uncommitted. Father Scalia, as I pointed out in a previous post, struck just the right balance in the sermon at his father’s funeral. I think there needs to be more gravitas in our funeral liturgy, a less pallid explanation of what it means for the individual to come face to face with God—not in fear of condemnation, but in the honest self-appraisal of the particular judgment. A liturgy must not obscure the truth about what we celebrate and the truth is that in death we come face to face with God and that encounter strips away all our lies and myths and self-deceit as we come to see ourselves with the same brutal honesty with which God sees us. In this encounter we never forget the key truth that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son that whoever believes in him will not perish but will have eternal life, but neither can we be flip about what will be the most profound moment of our existence.