Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, August 31, 2009

Senator Kennedy's funeral

These reflections are in no sense intended as an appraisal of the legacy of Ted Kennedy. Rather, I am focussing on the letter he wrote to the Pope (readily available on the Web), which must surely touch the heart of every faithful Christian, and on the funeral service itself.

Many of us who could never be Roman Catholics are nevertheless grateful to that tradition for holding the line against acculturation such as we have seen in the Protestant churches. It has been disappointing, therefore, in recent years, to see the RC funeral being altered to accommodate the current trends--in particular, the trend toward allowing eulogies to dominate the service. There are many strategies the church can use to counteract this trend, which has done much to undermine the theology of the Cross and Resurrection, but few have cared to buck the trends. (In my own family we have fought back successfully with two strategies: 1) having all personal remarks at the beginning, before the service itself begins; and alternately, 2) having only a sermon in which various personal reminiscences are included with the proclamation of the gospel. It was very disappointing to see how, at the Kennedy service, the homily with its biblical promises came first, with the eulogies following, so that by the time President Obama spoke, everyone had forgotten the homily.

Another disappointment is the way that the RCs have gone along with this idea that the funeral service is "a celebration of life." If this were specifically identified as a celebration of the Resurrection life of Jesus Christ, that would be OK, but that's not what most people understand by it. Most frequently, the expression is "a celebration of his (or her) life," meaning the life of the deceased. The Christian funeral has never been such a "celebration." The Book of Common Prayer still calls it The Burial of the Dead. Some Presbyterian funerals I have attended have called it A Service of Witness to the Resurrection in memory of ---, which has merit. But calling it a celebration of the life of the deceased has two unfortunate consequences: 1) the denial of the reality and power of death, and 2) an exclusively anthropocentric focus which has come to define the modern funeral. The increasingly popular memorial service presents its own problems: a "memorial service" suggests, to the great majority of people, memories of the deceased. Even if memories of the Resurrection are meant (and few would make that link), the service of The Burial of the Dead is no more a "memory" of Christ's Resurrection than the Lord's Supper is a "memory " of the Last Supper. In both cases, the Lord is present in power--in the Eucharist if there is one, and in the Word if not.

The Cross is also missing from the modern funeral, and was largely missing from Kennedy's funeral. When there is no mention of sin, and of sinners redeemed, a central feature of the gospel is being denied. Of all people, Kennedy himself, in his letter to the Pope, seemed more aware of his sinful condition than anyone who spoke at the funeral. Since his defects of character were so very public and well-known, the omission of any explicit confession or reference to the Cross of Christ can only be judged a case of wilful denial. (Of course the Lord's Prayer does cover those bases, but there needs to be more. If I missed something, let me know and I will make the correction.)

Finally, and perhaps most important, is the whole issue of the nature of salvation. The entire human race is set on the default position that good deeds outweigh bad deeds, and nothing from below can change this default position; preachers of the gospel can only remind us daily that we need to be begotten from above (born again) in order to understand the completely new thing that has happened in Christ. In Him, thanks be to God, the moral calculus has been erased. It was the particular genius of the Reformation to see this.

Kennedy's letter to the Pope, while obviously sincere and deeply moving, displays this fundamental theological error (though, to be sure, only in a muted degree because of the essentially humble tone of the letter as a whole) that sinful deeds can be cancelled out by righteous deeds. We need to be explaining to our congregations on a daily basis: this is not the gospel.

According to an article in The New York Times this very day, "hints of pluralism" can be discerned in Islam. A progressive Egyptian Muslim has scandalized conservatives by writing in his newspaper column that a scantily-clad dancer should be judged by her good deeds, if they outweigh her sins. This may indeed represent a liberalizing tendency in Islam, but it does not in any way represent Christian theology of either the liberal or the conservative variety.

PS. The funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, in Westminster Abbey was a bitter disappointment to many. I wrote a column about this for The Living Church and received 75 approving letters in response--presumably from people of a certain age, since the trends proceed apace. The column is available on this website.