Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Death at Christmas – Sermon for Advent 2, RCL Year B

Today’s Gradual, Psalm 85, includes what may be my favorite verse in the entire collection of the Psalms: “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” (v. 10)

I think it may be my favorite because it figures prominently in the movie Babette’s Feast, based on a short story by the Danish write Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen). The story tells of a grand meal prepared for the residents of a small Danish village in memory of their deceased Lutheran pastor. In flash backs, we see his ministry and on several occasions we hear him quote this verse, which seems to be a rallying cry for his flock.

Mercy and truth have met together; *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.

It’s a lovely poetic summation of the Peaceable Kingdom painted by Isaiah in our Old Testament lesson and elsewhere in that book of prophecy.

That’s one thing I like about Psalm 85. Another is something that you can’t see in the Psalm as it is published in The Book of Common Prayer. If you were to look this psalm up in the Bible, you’d find an untranslated word at the end of verse 2, the word Selah. It is found in the Psalms no fewer than 71 times and in none of those occurrences is it translated. The word is left untranslated for the simple reason that no one really knows what it means. It is believed to be a rubric, that is, a liturgical direction, for the temple singers or the congregation when the Psalms were used in worship. Some scholars point to its apparent linguistic relationship to the verb meaning “to lift” and suggest it may be something like the musical direction fortissimo, a direction to increase the volume of singing. Some modern rabbis and cantors argue that it is a direction to repeat the verse, something like the da capo notation in music. Others point to its apparent relationship to a verb meaning “to weigh” or “to measure” and suggest that it is a direction to pause and prayerfully consider what has just been sung or recited. Whatever it may be, no one knows. All are agreed that it is a rubric, and that rubrics should be taken seriously and followed, but how do we follow a rubric we don’t understand?

There is a rubric in The Book of Common Prayer that, in my experience, is seldom followed; there are, I think, actually several of those but the one I am thinking of is on page 445 at the end of the service of thanksgiving for the birth or adoption of a child. We probably ignore it and fail to follow it because of that placement in a service which is very infrequently encountered. It might have been better placed in the burial liturgy. In any event, you might turn to page 445 and follow along with me. The rubric in question directs us as follows:

The Minister of the Congregation is directed to instruct the people, from time to time, about the duty of Christian parents to make prudent provision for the well-being of their families, and of all persons to make wills, while they are in health, arranging for the disposal of their temporal goods, not neglecting, if they are able, to leave bequests for religious and charitable uses.

In this season of Advent, when in last weeks gospel lesson Jesus forcefully reminded us that we “do not know when the time will come” and in today’s John the Baptizer yells “Prepare!”, it seems a good thing to pay attention to this rubric and remind us all to make or update our wills and to make other plans for our eventual demise. For we may not know the time, but one thing we know for certain, there will be a time.

There are some other rubrics I would like to call to your attention as well. Unlike this one about instruction on testamentary planning, these rubrics are found in the burial offices. The same directions are printed on both page 468 and 490 of the prayer book, in the “Concerning the Service” section of both the traditional Rite I and the contemporary Rite II versions of the service for burial of the dead:

The death of a member of the Church should be reported as soon as possible to, and arrangements for the funeral should be made in consultation with, the Minister of the Congregation.

Baptized Christians are properly buried from the church. The service should be held at a time when the congregation has opportunity to be present.

It may seem odd to be calling these end-of-life rubrics to your attention in this season of preparation for Christmas, and I suppose it is. But, as I’m sure many of you know, these holiday times can be tough times for many people precisely because of the absence of departed loved ones. My own mother died just a few days before Christmas in 1999. So, however odd it may be, this is as good a time as any, and perhaps a better time than most, for us to address these issues for, as Peter reminds us in the epistle lesson, “[T]he day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.” Our own passing, or that of a loved one, may come just as unexpectedly, but most assuredly it will come.

All people are grass,
[says the prophet Isaiah in today’s lesson]
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
* * *
The grass withers, the flower fades . . . .

These prayer book directions about the burial of church members have been on my mind the past several weeks because of the death in late September of Marcia L______ H_______ and now this week of Susan H_______ P_______. Both were long-time, faithful members of this congregation; both of them widows living alone although in recent weeks Sue had moved to ___________, Ohio, to live with her daughter and then during the past week had moved into a residential hospice. In neither case was the church notified when they died and in neither case was I (in the words of the rubric) consulted in regard to arrangements for their funerals.

In Marcia’s case, a public memorial was planned with the assistance of the funeral director and I was invited to preside only after the service was decided on and publicized. In Sue’s case, no public memorial has been planned, her family opting for a private memorial at some other location; I have yet to learn what, if any, arrangements have been made.

Is this what either of these faithful women, who worshiped regularly in this place and who themselves often took part in and even assisted with the requiems celebrated for others, would have wanted? I don’t know because, so far as I know, they made no advance preparation with regard to funeral services. They could have. We have a booklet and forms available for doing just that. But, so far as I know, they did not.

I will always be grateful to my mother for having done so. She had taken the time to choose lessons and hymns for her service, to decide whether she wanted her life to be remembered at a requiem mass or simple a burial office (she opted for the former), to relieve her family and her priest of the burden of making those decisions, and to give her family and friends the comfort of knowing that we were doing for her what she wanted to have done. Her preplanning made it possible for us, and for the congregation of which she was a part, to enter fully into burial liturgy, into prayerfully processing our grief without worrying whether we were doing the “right” thing.

My mother and my stepfather, who followed her in death a few years later (and who had also pre-planned his funeral), also did what that rubric on page 445 instructs; they made a bequest to their parish in Southern California so that its life and ministry would be able to continue even though their regular offerings would not.

Although she died before Christmas, we did not hold my mother’s requiem until a couple of weeks later, until the holidays were nearly over. At her funeral, we read the lessons she’d selected; we sang the hymns she’d listed. We also sang her favorite Christmas carols. If she’d not done that preparatory work, Christmas that year could have been, would have been a time of great sorrow, and the joy of every Christmas since would have been dulled and dimmed by that grief. Instead, I can and do sing those Christmas songs with delight and comfort. Her pre-planning was one of the greatest Christmas gifts I’ve ever been given.

Each year, in the quiet morning hours of the anniversary of her death, in addition to the prayers of the Daily Office, I say the prayer from the beginning of the burial service. I offer it now for Marcia and for Sue, as well as for my mother, and I invite you to name any loved ones departed who you may be missing during these holidays. Let us pray:

O God of grace and glory, we remember before you this day our sisters Marcia and Sue. We remember also these others whom we name either silently or aloud: . . . .

We thank you for giving them to us, their families and friends, to know and to love as a companion on our earthly pilgrimage. In your boundless compassion, console us who mourn. Give us faith to see in death the gate of eternal life, so that in quiet confidence we may continue our course on earth, until, by your call, we are reunited with those who have gone before; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP Page 493)

“Keep alert,” says Jesus, “for you do not know the hour.”

“Prepare,” says John the Baptizer.

“Comfort, comfort my people,” says God through the prophet Isaiah.

In the story of Babette’s Feast, the daughters of the deceased Lutheran pastor, Philipa and Martine, were worried and distracted about how to celebrate the memory of their father. They wanted to do something, but didn’t know what. Their cook, the French refugee Babette, relieved and comforted them by taking on that task, by planning and executing a celebration such as they could never have imagined. Although the strict and austere Lutheran community had some trepidations about the meal, in the end mercy and truth do meet together; righteousness and peace do kissed each other as the townspeople are comforted, old hurts are healed, and they dance together in the streets singing “Alleluia!”

You can prepare and provide comfort for your loved ones by pre-planning your own requiem or burial. We have the forms to do that; in fact, I have plenty of them here today and encourage you to take one home, fill it out, give copies to the church office, to your spouse, to your children. Also, if you don’t have a will or other estate plan, make one. If you do, review it; revise it if necessary, remembering, as the rubric says, “to leave bequests for religious and charitable uses.”

Let us pray:

O God, whose days are without end, and whose mercies cannot be numbered: Make us, we pray, deeply aware of the shortness and uncertainty of human life; and let your Holy Spirit lead us in holiness and righteousness all our days; that, when we shall have served you in our generation, we may be gathered to our ancestors, having the testimony of a good conscience, in the communion of the Catholic Church, in the confidence of a certain faith, in the comfort of a religious and holy hope, in favor with you, our God, and in perfect charity with the world. All this we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP Page 504)

(Note: St. Paul’s Parish’s “A Funeral Planning Guide” may be accessed in .PDF format here.)


This is a homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 10, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service, Advent 2, RCL Year B, are Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2,8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; and St. Mark 1:1-8. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)


1 Comment

  1. Rev. Susan Haseltine

    Thank you, while none of the deaths in my family were in Dec. I do know that grief is an undercurrent for all of us for all of us have suffered loss and death. Sue

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