A funeral mass I celebrated today made me realize something – there are a lot of words in the funeral liturgy. Don’t get me wrong, many of them are beautiful, comforting, and theologically rich. Yet there are just a lot of them.
As I talked with the grieving family afterward, they told me that the moments when they were most impacted by the liturgy were those of silence – the silent moments of quiet breath after “Let us pray” and before the words began. The silence as the coffin was censed and smoke rose with loving goodbyes. The silence after the Kontakion was finished. The silence as the coffin was loaded into the hearse. Silence spoke.
Of course, liturgies are filled with beautiful sounds – soaring arias and hymns of praise. Yet it is often the moment after the sound breaks when the Holy seems to say, “I am here.”
As we gathered around the graveside, in the peace of a cemetery at the foot of soaring mountains, I was acutely aware of the sounds all about us in the midst of our quiet prayer. Birds chirped, geese honked, there were gentle whispers. Tears fell and some were held back. All around us though the sounds of nature – of life going on – were as loud as a whisper in the dark. Even at the grave, the whole of creation all around us was making its song heard.
There were more words. Then there was the sound of dirt hitting wood. The sound of flowers sliding down the side of the coffin as they were offered with trembling hands. The sound of the heavy cords as they were slid from underneath the coffin. The sound of the vault closing shut – within it a life was retreating into dirt even as a soul reached for light.
The words are not the thing itself, it seemed like, today. The words created the space for the Holy to speak with that still small voice which is Hope.
Our true hope is to live as though we have already died. To live truly unafraid of what may come and truly at peace. The things that death will open to us are always about us and always true. Death, come when it will, is like baptism, the passage from this state into another, in which we shall actually perceive what we now only know by faith, and in which all that we now see will be at an end but all that is promised will be seen.
When death comes, we will be faced with the twin realities that are embedded in the life of the Cross. There will be mourning, pain, and grief. Yet paired with that will come the glory of resurrection life and new truth.
How we live our life determines how our death shall find us. If we are able at the end to say there is no sin we have not repented of, there is no one with whom we have not made peace, there is no one we have not told how much we love them, there is no dream unpursued, no call unheard, no chance untaken. If we have lived the fullness that God expects of us then we will have lived a holy life, we will have flourished as holy creations.
We find moments of transcendence and hope. In laughter, love, and hope. Even in heartache, pain, and grief we are given glimpses of a richly woven world that defies explanation and definition. It is beyond real and makes a mockery of the simply physical reality. It makes a mockery of the notion that what we can see or observe is all that there is.
Those who have known love, experienced true grief, laughed loudly, cried themselves hoarse know that there is more in life, more to life, more of life than the simply physical…than the real. Christianity gives us the vocabulary to understand this truth. We know the presence of the Holy Spirit in the love of those all around us, the creative love of the Father in the beauty of creation, and the love of the Son in our redemption.
By them and through them we begin to perceive, even dimly, the outlines of the truth of new life. The glory of true life takes form in the irreality of this one – amidst the chaos and distraction of power games and personality cults. We are dead to sin, to the world, in baptism, and are enfolded into the truth of God’s love -a love which will carry us through the end of the real, of this life, and this world and into resurrected Truth.
This is the stuff of life between words – in the day’s quiet places and the soul’s still spaces we find ourselves being called anew to Baptismal hope. In between our busyness, our talking, and our frantic to-and-fro, God is calling us to be still – to be silent – and to know true peace.