16 September 2007

Singing the Resurrection at Christian Funerals

In reading the prefaces that Luther wrote for various hymnals and such, I came across the following from his 1542 "Preface to the Burial Hymns," which I found to be quite lovely and comforting. It called to mind some of my own recent thoughts on the way that we Christians bury the bodies of the blessed dead in the hope and confession of the resurrection.

"We Christians, who have been redeemed from eternal death and the wrath of God by the dear blood of the Son of God, should by faith train and accustom ourselves to despise death and to regard it as a deep, strong, and sweet sleep, to regard the coffin as nothing but paradise and the bosom of our Lord Christ, and the grave as nothing but a soft couch or sofa, which it really is in the sight of God; for He says, John 11, 'Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep,' and Matthew 9, 'The girl is not dead but sleeping.'

"Thus, too, St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 bans from his sight every ugly aspect of death in our mortal body and brings to the fore a wholly delightful and joyous picture of life when he says: 'What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. . . . It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.'

"Accordingly . . . we do not want our churches to be houses of wailing and places of mourning any longer, but Koemeteria (cemeteries) as the old fathers were wont to call them, that is, dormitories and resting places.

"Nor do we sing any dirges or doleful songs over our dead and at the grave, but comforting hymns of the forgiveness of sins, of rest, sleep, life, and of the resurrection of departed Christians so that our faith may be strengthened and the people be moved to true devotion.

"For it is meet and right that we should conduct these funerals with proper decorum in order to honor and praise that joyous article of our faith, namely, the resurrection of the dead, and in order to defy Death, that terrible foe who so shamefully and in so many horrible ways goes on to devour us.

"Thus the holy patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and others, conducted their burials with much splendor and left explicit directions concerning them. Later the kings of Judah made a great show and pomp over the dead with costly incense and all sorts of rare and precious spices, all of which was done to spite the stinking and shameful Death and to praise and confess the resurrection of the dead and thus to comfort the sad and the weak in faith.

"Here also belong the traditional Christian burial rites, such as that the bodies are carried in state, beautifully decked, and sung over, and that tombstones adorn their graves. All this is done so that the article of the resurrection may be firmly implanted in us. For it is our lasting, blessed, and eternal comfort and joy against death, hell, devil, and every woe" (Luther's Works, Vol. 53, Fortress 1965, pp. 326-327).

Luther assists us in singing what he preaches, in his great Easter hymn:

"Christ Jesus lay in death's strong bands for our offenses given; but now at God's right hand He stands and brings us life from heaven. Therefore let us joyful be and sing to God right thankfully loud songs of alleluia! Alleluia!

"Christ Jesus, God's own Son, came down, His people to deliver; destroying sin, He took the crown from death's pale brow forever: Stripped of power, no more it reigns; an empty form alone remains; its sting is lost forever. Alleluia!

"It was a strange a dreadful strife when life and death contended; the victory remained with life, the reign of death was ended. Holy Scripture plainly saith that death is swallowed up by death, its sting is lost forever. Alleluia!" (LSB 458, sts. 1, 3-4)

So are we also given to sing and pray with Martin Schalling: "Lord, let at last Thine angels come, to Abraham's bosom bear me home, that I may die unfearing; and in its narrow chamber keep my body safe in peaceful sleep until Thy reappearing. And then from death awaken me, that these mine eyes with joy may see, O Son of God, Thy glorious face, my Savior and my fount of grace. Lord Jesus Christ my prayer attend, my prayer attend, and I will praise Thee without end" (LSB 708, st. 3).

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