By Kathleen Staudt
A character in one of Mary Gordon’s novels, talking about what the various denominations believe, concludes wryly by saying, “and Episcopalians are not required to believe in anything but the beauty of the Burial Service.”
There’s something to that, I’ve thought during this Lenten season, when on 3 out of the 5 weekends in Lent I have had a funeral to attend. None were for close family members, but all were services I couldn’t miss. All used the same basic liturgy. All were beautiful and fitting. Two of the services had been carefully designed by friends as they were dying, enshrining something of themselves in eloquent readings and uncannily appropriate music. A third was bare-bones and beautiful, following the sudden death of a member of the church choir, who had been there singing with us the Sunday before. All three services somehow managed to bring together for us the life of an ordinary, beloved person and the quiet hope of Resurrection faith.
Funerals are always disorienting, coming as they do in the midst of life. But a funeral during Lent, if we are observing the season aright, is jarring in ways that go beyond words, and into the heart of our faith. On the Sundays and other days in Lent, the cloth on and behind the altar is purple, as are the stoles the priests wear. Our local custom replaces the bronze altar cross with a simple wooden one; floral arrangements are replaced by budding branches or sparse greenery. We don’t say “Alleluias.” And we commit to whatever practices help us to be aware of our need for God’s mercy and love, our desire to repent, return, be restored. Much is taken away, deliberately, during Lent, to make us available to transformation.
And then we arrive at a funeral in mid-Lent and find ourselves suddenly kicked out of Lent into Easter: “I am the Resurrection and the life, saith the Lord. . . . I know that my Redeemer liveth. . . whether we live, or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” There are flowers in the church and the altar hangings and vestments are white. The paschal candle burns, and we sing an Easter hymn. Lent or no Lent, “even at the grave, we make our song, ‘Alleluia.’” A funeral in Lent takes us to the unnameable heart of our faith, which is not about any one of us, our worthiness or unworthiness, but about the unfathomable grace and power of a Risen Saviour who calls us to himself, and gathers us together to receive the promise. But the way to this place of promise is through the loss and the grief that are a part of our human condition.
This year the liturgical season is reminding me of how much the observance of Lent grounds me in the spiritual journey, reminding me of the need simply to be in a “between-time” — with glimpses of Easter, but only through the lens of grief and death, on this side of the Cross. I found it almost a relief, the Sunday after a Saturday funeral, to return to the sombre purple of Lent. I was back to a place I knew how to be in. It is a time we move through, each year, a pilgrimage- time, between the life we’re used to and the mystery of transformation and life eternal. It is hard to find words for this, frustrating to me since I am a word-person; but the visual and liturgical cues of Lenten observance – and of our paradoxical, beautiful burial service, provide an experience of the mystery that I am cherishing this year.
I suppose what I am experience is the truth that we are ultimately and always an Easter people – but our whole life’s journey and beyond is about figuring out what that means, and each Lenten season invites a new beginning in that direction. I feel closer to the mystery this year, because of these Lenten funerals. They have been disturbing, disorienting, paradoxical. But a blessing, nonetheless.
Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt (Kathy) keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.