It has been a difficult week for Russ and Suzanne Crawford and their children at the death of their son John. It has also been difficult for our small family at Trinity as we have grieved along with the Crawfords. Part of the problem is that in the face death all of us are helpless. In the light of that St. Paul advises that we “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.”[i]
Sometimes our language with its delicate nuances manages to avoid very simple and profound realities. It was once the fashion to use ‘obsequies’ for ‘funerals’ and today we hear of people ‘passing’ instead of ‘dying.’ The latter I can almost understand along with the rest of the phrase, “passing on into the great beyond” which was a common expression during the American Civil War era. The problem is our attempt to treat death in an antiseptic way avoiding the sharp pain of loss that accompanies death and dying.
There is a sound psychological and theological reason why The Book of Common Prayer doesn’t call that final service either the Obsequies or the Funeral, but rather The Burial of the Dead.
While dealing with death in a frank and honest way The Book of Common Prayer puts death and dying in the context of the Resurrection, and the Burial service starts with the words, “I am the Resurrection and I am the Life, says the Lord. Whoever has faith in me shall have life, even though he die.”[ii]
When John Crawford died last week, he was immediately absent from the body and present with the Lord; fully conscious, fully aware, fully physical. That’s the nature of the heavenly realm. Saint Paul tells us, “I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.”[iii] The simple reality is that in order to enter into eternal life one has to die.
In Christ, we die in order to live. It is a passage ‘into the great beyond,’ but a passage laden with grief and loss both for the one dying and those who love him. The fear of death lies in part in our evaluation of our own lives and in the fear of the unknown. For Christians that self-evaluation is resolved by the confession of our sins and by our acceptance of the Prayer Book faith that Christ Jesus has died and risen again to bring us into eternal life.
I don’t so much fear being what they call ‘dead.’ I know that when I die that I, like John, will be absent from the body and present with the Lord. That is after all an essential confession of our Christian faith. On the other hand I have some anxiety about the process of getting there. Launching off in faith on that final journey has a breath-taking challenge about it and resonates with the words of Andrew Marvel who wrote:
But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.