Monday, September 3, 2012

A funeral, and thoughts on Sacraments

Russian icon, 19 c.
I went to a funeral mass on Friday, at a Catholic church.

I always tell the story about how a funeral mass really impressed me, during my (many) years outside the church.  I'd only ever stepped into a church a few times, for weddings and funerals - almost always, in fact, Catholic ones.  One of these was the funeral for a housemate of mine, a woman in her 80s; she'd outlived all her friends, and had, really, nothing much left of her own in the world.  But the funeral mass said for her was the same one that would have been said for any wealthy or powerful person; the language, and the liturgical action, were just the same.  The same words were said; the same prayers were prayed; the same care was taken, and the rite was performed with same solemnity and respect and dignity as it would have been for anyone else, as the lovely, wispy, sweet-smelling smoke from the incense rose into the air.

In other words:  the funeral rite stripped away everything else, and simply stated the core Christian belief:  that the human being lying there was, in the most essential way and most importantly "a sheep of the Lord's own fold, a lamb of His own flock, a sinner of His own redeeming."  Rich or poor, old or young, powerful or not:  this was a lamb to be "received into the arms of His mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light."  (These are the words of the Burial service in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, not the ones from the Catholic rite! I don't know those, and am back-filling here - and the BCP really nails this, IMO - but the idea was clear nontheless.)

And, wow.  I didn't know much about Christianity then, and didn't realize that this idea is, simply, inevitable - that it comes directly out of the Scriptural account and the theology, and is something you cannot argue around no matter how much you may want to.   But I knew this was incredibly important and that the Church had something truly valuable to say - something far, far better than anything the world could possibly offer.

The ritual calls for the entrance of the casket into the church, where it's draped with the pall and sprinkled with holy water.  It's then brought to the front of the church near the altar, and sits there through the service next to the lighted Paschal candle - an unspoken testament to our true condition in this world.  These are the facts, ladies and gentlemen, whether we like it or not; this is what we all come to in the end.  And yet.  And yet:  there is this astounding mercy, too.   There is plenteous redemption and there is grace; we are lambs of the Lord's own flock, sinners of his redeeming - and there is blessed rest.   Blessed rest.   At the final moments of the rite, the priest ritually circles the casket, censing it, and offering prayers for the dead as the smoke rises:   clearly (to my eyes then) a symbol of purification, and a last benediction.  Then the casket is taken to the doors of the church, where the white pall with the purple cross on it is removed again, and the body is taken to be committed to the earth, dust to dust.

There is a great, noble dignity and serenity about all this - and all of it is very, very clear, even to somebody with hardly any experience with any religion:  this is the way things ought to be.   There's a reason the 23rd Psalm is almost always read at funerals; The Lord is My Shepherd.  Could there be a better candidate for that than the Crucified - a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief?  A shepherd who leaves the 99 to look for the lost one, to carry it home on his shoulders?

I have gotten off the track here; I'd wanted to talk about the Sacraments in general, and about Confession and Communion in particular (because these were mentioned in the homily).  But perhaps I'll just write another post for that.

I would like to point, though, to a post about another funeral - the requiem for the "last Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary" - and still another, even clearer, liturgical exposition of what the church has to say on the topic.  Here's the post, and below the video of the "knocking ceremony" before the interment.   Below that, I've added the script and translation for the ceremony.

According to Ludwig von Mises Institute:
AFTER A requiem at Vienna’s St Stephen’s Cathedral, the funeral party entered Vienna’s Capuchin Friary (Kapuzinerkirche) after the following “knocking” ceremony.


Capuchin Friar : “Who desires admission?”

Leader of funeral party: “Otto of Austria, former Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary, Prince Royal of Hungary, Croatia and Bohemia, of Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Galicia, Lodomeria and Illyria; Grand Duke of Tuscany and Cracow; Duke of Lorraine, Salzburg, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola and Bukowina; Grand Prince of Transylvania, Margrave of Moravia; Duke of Upper and Lower Silesia, Modena, Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla, of Osweicim and Zator, of Teschen, Friaul, Dubrovnik and Zadar; Princely Count of Habsburg and Tyrol, of Kyburg, Gorizia and Gradisca; Prince of Trento and Brixen; Margrave of Upper and Lower Lusatia and Istria: Count of Hohenems, Feldkirch, Bregenz, Sonnenburg; Lord of Trieste, Kotor and Windic March; Grand Voivod of the Voivodship of Serbia”

Friar : “We do not know him!”


Friar : “Who desires admission?”

Leader : “Dr Otto von Habsburg; President and Honorary President of the Pan-European Union; Member and Father of the House of the European Parliament; Holder of honorary doctorates from countless universities and freeman of many communities in Central Europe; Member of numerous noble academies and institutes; Bearer of high and highest awards, decorations and honours of church and state made to him in recognition of his decade-long struggle for the freedom of peoples, for right and justice.”

Friar: “We do not know him!”


Friar : “Who desires admission?”

Leader : “Otto — a mortal, sinful man!”

Friar: “Let him be admitted."

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