Monday, August 26, 2013

Two Troubling Funeral Trends

I haven't done research to determine whether or not these truly rise to the definition of a "trend."  But over the course of the last few years, I've noticed a couple of things happening with funerals that trouble me.

The first is a tendency to have funerals in funeral homes rather than the church.  That seems to happen a lot in the area I currently live in.  A number of factors could be at play here, including things like cost and whether or not the deceased has a church home.  I get that.

But what really troubles me is when families decide to have the service at a funeral home even when their deceased loved one was an active, beloved member of a parish church for 30, 40, or 50 years.  That's happened several times now, and it just breaks my heart.  It's a decision that divorces the deceased from the place where so many important things happened in her life, including her own wedding and/or that of her children, baptisms of children and grandchildren, confirmations, funerals of other church members, and the weekly round of worship, fellowship, and service.  

The physical being of the church building - the nave, the sanctuary, the baptismal font, the altar, the cross, the reredos, the lingering aroma of incense - it all speaks to the ways in which our life stories are interwoven into the story of the faith so succinctly summarized in the catholic creeds.  The sterile, secular setting of a funeral home silences that story.  And while I've known many wonderful, helpful, pastorally sensitive people who work in the business, a service in a funeral home feels contrived and alienated from the core of the Christian faith.

People sometimes say that the building is not the church; the people are the church.  Having lived through the destruction of the church building in which I was confirmed and married, I understand the point being made only too well.

But like bodies, places matter.  The Book of Common Prayer acknowledges this when it says: "Baptized Christians are properly buried from the church" (p. 490; emphasis added).  And so, to me, the decision to bypass the church for a Christian's funeral feels deeply wrong, almost like taking a mother's baby and giving it away to a stranger.

The second troubling thing I've experienced is funeral services without a body or cremains.  That hasn't come up in my ministry as often as a family's decision to use the funeral home rather than the church, but I've seen it enough times to be concerned.  I note that the Burial Offices in The Book of Common Prayer assume that a body is present (or, arguably by extension, that cremains are present).  Again, bodies matter.

The Prayer Book's assumption that a body is present is particularly true of the Commendation.  As the Prayer Book rubric for the Commendation makes explicit: "The Celebrant and other ministers take their places at the body" (p. 499; emphasis added).  And yet, I've actually seen an Episcopal priest do a Commendation with no body or cremains in the church.  That makes about as much sense as performing a baptism without a baptismal candidate present, or celebrating the Eucharist on a bare altar without the elements of bread and wine.

Again, I don't know for sure if these two things rise to the definition of a "trend."  But they both strike me as rather Gnostic departures from the Christian understanding of bodies, death, burial, resurrection, and hope for the life of the world to come.  


In a posting at catholicity and covenant entitled "Silencing the story? Hope, funerals, and the Eucharist," BC cites my posting and adds important observations, particularly regarding the importance of the Eucharist for the funeral liturgy.  BC writes:

It is in the very physicality of the Eucharist in which we see and taste how "life stories are interwoven in the story of the faith". In the Eucharist the Church's self-understanding as the community centred on and given meaning by the Paschal Mystery is made visible - and is made real. When the funeral liturgy is celebrated within the Eucharist, we are proclaiming and showing that the death of the baptised is to [be] understood not within the sterile story of secularism but within the hope-filled Paschal Mystery of the Crucified and Risen One.

Read it all.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Fleming Rutledge: "We do not have access to 'the historical Jesus'"

Writing in response to a Wall Street Journal review of Reza Aslan's book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and Géza Vermès' book Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge succinctly undercuts the idea that we can get "behind" the New Testament to the "real" Jesus.  She writes:

Many people have pointed out the limitations of these endless attempts to recast Jesus in light of what scholars think they can discover behind the New Testament, the so-called gnostic gospels, and other early texts, but these caveats do not reach the typical person who is either 1) reading about the books in the media or 2) actually reading them because (sigh) they have been recommended by their church leaders. We have an entire generation of churchgoing people who have been robbed of faith in Christ by these misbegotten searches for a "historical" Jesus.
It must be stated as clearly as possible: we do not have access to "the historical Jesus." Every single one of these attempts to discover the historical person behind the New Testament text is doomed from the start. All that is known of Jesus is in the New Testament, which was written by faith for faith. In that sense the entire Bible is indeed a unique document, because it simply does not yield its mysteries except to those who receive it in faith.

Read it all.

As I've noted in a previous posting entitled "Jesus Trumps the Bible," the Rev. Rutledge has made similar points before with respect to Jesus Seminar fellow Marcus Borg's false dichotomy between the "pre-Easter Jesus" and the "post-Easter Jesus."  Here's part of what she wrote about that:

... this often-heard distinction is based on a false assumption. We have no access to the pre-Easter Jesus. Every single word of testimony to him in the New Testament is refracted through the Resurrection. Therefore, any attempt to reconstruct a Jesus before anyone knew he would be raised from the dead are doomed to fail, because such projects, again, will always reflect the personal agenda of the interpreter.  
Like it or not, therefore, we must rely upon the Scripture as our only witness to Jesus. There is no other witness.

It is a rich irony that those who seek to usurp the authority of Scripture by painting a portrait of Jesus at odds with the Church's proclamation are forced to tacitly acknowledge Scripture's authoritative witness by citing New Testament texts among their principal sources.  

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Reggie McNeal: "Truth ultimately converges at one door, one path, and one life"

"We are currently in an ecumenism that celebrates 'people of faith' as if all faith is based in truth.  I am pleading with followers of Jesus to seize the moment and use this new spiritual openness to create conversations that will introduce people to Jesus, who is truth. ... Jesus said that God draws people to himself. And he also said that he was a part of this process ('I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself' John 12:32, NIV). God draws people to himself through Jesus, who is the way. People may and do begin their spiritual journeys from many starting points, but truth ultimately converges at one door, one path, and one life – Jesus. He is the only hope for salvation, for he alone is the Incarnation of God in human flesh. His nature as God, along with his sacrificial visit to this planet, gives him the right to set the rules. He says no one comes to the Father except through him. That is an exclusive claim, and it is offensive to people who are busy working their way to God on their own terms. The cross is always offensive, in every culture and in every generation, because it is the reminder that humans are in need of salvation and can’t do anything about it except on God's terms. This claim to exclusivity cost the early Christians their lives. It will stick in the throat of a religiously plural twenty-first century world just as it did in the first century."

~ Reggie McNeal, The Present Future: