I went to my first funeral as an Orthodox Christian this morning. I didn’t know the deceased. I went in my capacity as a Reader. My job was to help with the chanting, as the service is almost entirely a liturgy, and in the Orthodox Church, just about everything is sung or chanted.
I am new at this. I was ‘tonsured’ as a Reader by the Archbishop back in March. It has been a steep learning curve. New (to me) melodies + a paragraph of text and you’re off! There are eight families of melodies or ‘tones’ with further ways to do each one which still remain mysterious to me. I’m starting to recognize some of the tones, but I could not for the life of me generate one out of thin air (as in ‘sing this to tone 4 now!). Mostly, I try to follow Daniel who is another Reader and a school teacher, and a really good chanter, and who out of sheer goodness has taken me on as his project. So I listen to how he sings it and then try to reproduce it when it is my turn. Sometimes, oftimes I forget where it’s going halfway through and end up making up the rest. Chanting is, in my experience, a wonderful disincentive to pride.
Back to the funeral. I have presided over many funerals in my previous career as an ordained Presbyterian minister. And to be honest, funerals were my favorite service to officiate (with weddings the least). The reason being is that at a funeral, we are finally confronted with ultimate reality for us as human beings. After spending our entire lives in denial, we are suddenly confronted with our terrible mortality. Every pretense is stripped away, every boast is proven empty. And we are confronted with the irrefutable evidence lying there in the casket that we sons of Adam and daughters of Eve are in a terrible bind. It is the one obvious time where the remedies and lies of the world are proven ridiculous. Christians, of all the religions in the world, can look death in the face with real hope. We understand why we die. We understand what God the Holy Trinity has done to rescue us from death, and we have a Savior the Lord Jesus who died like us and then broke its bonds and rose again from the dead, making it possible for us too to rise again on the last day.
As a Christian minister, I knew I could go in and sit and pray with a dying soul with the one thing, the only thing that could bring real hope and comfort. And I knew I could spend time with grieving family and friends and have the one thing that could bring them real hope and real comfort. And at a service, as I looked over congregations that were sometimes vast and sometimes tiny and sometimes in between, I knew I could pray and preach with gospel power, having been given a message, in fact the only message that could bring real hope and comfort in the midst of grief and loss, and real meaning when confronting the realities of the rest of one’s life in the face of one’s own impending death.
I felt these very same things this morning as I stood in my cassock with Daniel and the other Readers. The Liturgy we use is powerful. And whether in my own private prayers or as I follow or participate in the various liturgies of the Church, I’m constantly aware of my tendency to run on top of the words rather than let them become a part of me. Here is part of what we chanted today, a part of our funeral liturgy that is attributed to St. John of Damascus who was living in the 7th century.
The priest sings:
‘With the Saints give rest, O Christ, to the soul of your servant - , where there is no toil, nor grief, nor sighing, but everlasting life.’
Then one Reader chants after the other:
What pleasure in life remains without its share of sorrow? What glory stands on earth unchanged? All things are feebler than a shadow, all things are more deceptive than dreams; one instant, and death supplants them all. But, O Christ, give rest to him You have chosen in the light of your countenance and the sweetness of your beauty, as You love mankind.
As a flower withers and as a dream passes, so every human being is dissolved. But once again, at the sound of the trumpet, all the dead will arise as by an earthquake to meet you, Christ God. Then, Christ our Master, establish in the tents of your Saints the spirit of your servant whom you have taken over from us.
Alas, what an ordeal the soul endures once separated from the body! Alas, what tears then, and there is none to pity her! She turns towards the Angels, her entreaty is without effect; she stretch out her hands to men, she has none to help. Therefore my dear brethren, thinking on the shortness of our life, let us ask of Christ rest for him who has passed over, and for ourselves his great mercy.
Everything human which does not survive death is vanity; wealth does not last, glory does not travel with us; for at death’s approach all of them disappear; and so let us cry out to Christ the Immortal One: Give rest to him who has passed from us, in the dwelling of all those who rejoice.
Truly most fearful is the mystery of death, how the soul is forcibly parted from the body, from its frame, and how that most natural bond of union is cut off by the will of God. Therefore we entreat you: Give rest in the tents of your just ones, him who has passed over, O Giver of Life, Lover of mankind.
Where is the attraction of the world? Where the delusion of the temporary? Where is gold, where silver? Where the throng and hubbub of servants? All dust, all ashes, all shadow. But come, let us cry out to the immortal King: O Lord, grant your eternal good things to him who has passed from us, giving him rest in the happiness which does not age.
I remembered how the Prophet cried out: I am earth and ashes; and I looked again into the tombs and saw the naked bones, and I said: Who then is a king or a soldier, a rich man or a beggar, a just man or a sinner? But give rest, O Lord, with the just to your servant.
Your command which fashioned me was my beginning and my substance; for wishing to compose me as a living creature from visible and invisible nature, you molded my body from the earth, but gave me a soul by your divine and life-giving breath. Therefore, O Christ, give rest to your servant in the land of the living, in the tents of the just.
Give rest, our Saviour, to our brother whom you have taken over from transient things, as he cries, ‘Glory to You!’
Having fashioned man in the beginning in your image and likeness, you placed in in Paradise to govern your creatures; but led astray by the envy of the devil he tasted the food and became a transgressor of your commandments; and so you condemned him , O Lord, to return again to the earth from which he had been taken, and to beg for rest.
I grieve and lament when I contemplate death and see the beauty fashioned for us in God’s image lying in the graves, without form, without glory, without shape. O the wonder! What is this mystery, which has happened to us? How have we been handed over to corruption, and yoked with death? Truly it is at God’s command, as it is written, God who grants rest to him who has passed over.
This is but a part of the service I helped with this morning. It goes on from here to include more prayers and songs, a time of testimonials from ones who may have prepared something to say, a homily from the priest or, in our case, the Archbishop. Benedictions and an opportunity to greet the family around the casket.
My take away from my morning at the cathedral? How I so often just run over top the words and then plunge back into the world as if nothing has happened. As we say (a lot): Kyrie eleison!