After attending yet another funeral in the morning yesterday, I came home and hunched over my kitchen counter, absorbed in leftover scalloped potatoes, to be transported by the soaring music, the elegant hats, and the heartbreaking social distancing of a very different kind of burial, that of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. A handful of people—the queen herself alone, sitting far distant even from her family—sat in the perfect stillness of mourning, heads bowed.
The contrast between the two funerals could not have been more pronounced, in spite of it being the same words, the same ecclesiastical tradition. The person buried all the way over there across the ocean enjoyed all that the world offered. He lived in a palace with a queen and was adorned with honors, with many weighty circles of insignia. He was perfectly well-bred and highly educated. He had excellent taste and expended himself on many charitable ventures. He could get on with everyone, except horrid reporters toward the end of his life. Duty and honor guided him in wisdom, and the service he arranged for himself was the very height of decorous and understated churchmanship. In his lifetime, indeed, he commissioned a new setting for Psalm 104 that was beautiful enough to make me cry. Surely if you were looking for blessing and honor and power and glory, there it all was in that man, or so all the commentators said afterward.
For the morning funeral, even fewer gathered—distantly of course—than in that tragically empty St. George’s Chapel. We made up 12, I think, spread across our not very beautiful church. Like so many unfortunate structures, it was remodeled in the 60s or 70s—the very worst time to redo anything. There were no flowers, though there was some solid and true and beautiful music. But it was the music that this person liked—Amazing Grace—and not the sort of thing that transports you, because you have already sung it at least ten times this year because of all the deaths. Unlike the Duke of Edinburgh, we did have a sermon. Our preacher is more reliable than most, even the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, whom I would not trust on such a delicate occasion not to say something paltry, or weird. Our preacher preached the gospel and told us to repent of our sins, following the example of the person in whose memory we were gathered. She was poor, unknown, mostly unloved by everyone in her life who should have loved her. She had no honor, no distinction, no reason to attract anyone’s notice. She was never asked to do any important work. She never put herself forward in any social situation. I am sure she was never rewarded for anything in her whole life.
She did do one astonishing thing, though, as our preacher reminded us. She forgave everyone. Chiefly she forgave the one person who had hurt her the most. There had been many who had injured her, but one person in what we would call “unforgivable” ways, had inflicted such terrible injuries that I cannot even name them. Nevertheless, she forgave unreservedly that person. Indeed, before that person died, many years ago, she brought someone along who told that person about the gospel, so that, in the final hours before life on earth ended, she–the one who hurt her–was saved for the one that goes on forever. And now the two are reunited there in glory and in consolation.
A line leapt out at me late last night as I read the readings for today, steeped as I am in death though it is Easter Season—
Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. But seeing the man who was healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition.
Indeed, this line has jangled around in the back of my head as I have endured Jesus and John Wayne, and as I continue to wander around comment threads online, and hear people complain about the Bible Belt, and those awful low pastors who preach salvation messages all the time. Don’t they know there is so much “more” to the whole enterprise? Where is the depth? The nuance? Why do they say the same thing over and over and over again without varying it? It’s not new or fresh. And it certainly isn’t sophisticated.
Though all the world right now cries out about racism, the class issues, I think, are much more to be blamed for our current Christian and cultural malaise. It’s not just that the poor believe—if only they would believe in a quiet and meek and unobtrusive way—it’s that the sort of religion they prefer is so often vulgar. It’s too much Amazing Grace and almost no William Lovelady. It is embarrassing because it admits no irony. There is nothing cynical about the kind of belief that the poor of the earth clutch onto. They can’t be talked out of it because they aren’t hankering after the honor and glory that comes with apostasy.
When Jesus died, and then rose, and so many people who had followed him, and poured all their hopes and dreams into him without bothering to find out who he really was—or rather is—and what he really was going to demand of them, discovered that he had picked a lot of low class, backwater, badly educated men as his inner circle—well, it let them know what kind of movement they were dealing with. It could be discredited outright. You can’t have that kind of thing anywhere near the halls of power and influence.
And yet, the line before that one—about how they were uneducated, common men, is this one spoken by Peter in his thick Galilean cadence:
This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.
All the stones pile up in the lofted ceiling of St. George’s Chapel, the light filters through those amazing windows, the notes of the music soar up into what must be the vault of heaven itself. Is there anything more beautiful? Is there any better honor? I, of all Anglicans, am so grateful for the gorgeously tasteful tradition that has measured out such comfortable words over so many hundreds of years. There is no better funeral service than the Anglican one. And if you have to have Amazing Grace, you may have it with an organ, the measured pace of those perfect, though so worn lines reminding you of such a basic, such a necessary truth as you needing the mercy and salvation of God.
And yet, when I count up the cost of the cross, when I consider the name given by which every one of us must be saved, when all the people in the world die, the honor will be for the one who did what Jesus himself did—forgave, unreservedly, without bitterness, without nuance or cynicism or irony. If you are prepared to explain away a clear and perfect Gospel, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, all your good breeding and education will not be to your benefit. It doesn’t matter if you are poor or rich, black or white, on Twitter or playing candy-crush, if you do not cry out to Jesus before the hour of your death, repent of your sins, and yes—even forgive those who have hurt you—then you tread a perilous and treacherous path.
Let the rivers clap their hands;
let the hills sing for joy together
before the Lord, for he comes
to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity.
cries the Psalmist. In the final reckoning, the poor in spirit alone—whatever their position in this life—will be the ones to see God. Better another verse of Amazing Grace for eternity than all the glory of a world that is fading away.