On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world” (John 11:17-27).
Then, of course, there are the things that are not as much fun to attend.
We attend a lot of funerals. This month, there were two funerals for officers who have been killed. I had the privilege of attending the funeral for Steven Smith, the Chicago Ridge police officer who was killed in a DUI car crash on I-294 on September 13. I got to be part of the funeral procession, which included dozens of squad cars from I don’t know how many police agencies. I participated in the police honor guard detail at the funeral home, and at the church. We stood at attention on the street in front of Our Lady of the Ridge Roman Catholic Church, along with a detail of flawlessly dressed (and immaculately choreographed) Marines, as the Emerald Society paraded in front of the hearse playing pipes and drums. It was a moving scene, and the police officers with whom I spoke were all, without exception, moved and gratified to see the entire town of Chicago Ridge honoring officer Steven Smith. Hundreds of people lined the streets as the funeral procession passed by. They waved American flags, and blue ribbons were tied to trees and lampposts along the way. There wasn’t an empty seat in the church for Mass.
As a civic ceremony, this funeral for a man who had a positive impact on the community in which he grew up and lived will remain in my memory for a long time. It was the perfect way for a community to collectively express gratitude toward one of its sons and loyal civil servants. The religious ceremony, however, disturbed me.
Wakes and funerals are curious things, especially the way they are done in America. Rather than being a means to help grieving friends and relatives cope with the death of a loved one, wakes and funerals oftentimes become a celebration of the very thing that took their loved one away – death. They end up, rather than comforting people, reminding them of all the good things they have lost to death. Funerals and wakes, generally and without meaning to, put on display all that the deceased was in this life. It usually happens in the form of photographs, bulletin boards, flowers and personal mementos scattered throughout the funeral parlor. All these things, in effect, tell the living who have gathered to mourn, “Look what you have lost and will never again experience”. The most heinous part of the entire wake experience is, quite possibly, the corpse itself.
The body of a deceased loved one painted and dressed; face plastered with makeup and frozen in an almost-but-not-quite serene expression, made to appear as if asleep. In the hands of the wrong funeral director, a corpse becomes morbid marionette that serves only to focus attention on the “star” of the hour – death. At a wake, what a victory death seems to have won. And, no more awkward a question has ever been asked than, “Boy, doesn’t he/she look good?”
No, they don’t look good. No one looks good lying in a casket.
The priest, in his homily, referred several times to this funeral mass as being a “celebration of life.” He eulogized the officer, recounting all sorts of incidents and anecdotes from his life, talking about what a wonderful person he was to those around him. The point he made at the end was, in recalling these things and sharing them with others, we keep him alive, just as we keep Jesus alive when we recall what Jesus has done, and imitate his love for his fellow man.
This made me cringe. It almost sounded as though the priest was denying an afterlife, let alone the resurrection, and saying that the dead – including Christ – are kept alive only in spirit, through collective memory. This emphasis was confusing, particularly since he read from John 11:25:
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die;
He did say that Christ was the only way to access God. But there was no mention of sin, or its forgiveness through the atoning sacrifice of Christ’s death on the cross. With a casket in the center of the church, the saccharin words about celebrating life rang somewhat hollow, and you could see it on the face of Officer Smith’s mother.
The second thing that stuck out to me was the celebration of mass. I don’t intend to get into an in-depth comparative study of the Roman and Lutheran liturgies here, or to debate transubstantiation, consubstantiation, and the Real Presence. I have attended other masses in the past, and am familiar with what goes on. I have previously watched the presentation of the gifts, the bread and the wine, and heard the priest call on God to sanctify these offerings, that they may become the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. I have seen priests re-present this unbloody sacrifice and offer it, “in reparation for the sins of the living and the dead and to obtain spiritual or temporal benefits from God” many times in the past (Roman Catholic Church 1994). These works were performed at this funeral Mass as well. Again, when there is a casket containing the body of one of those faithful departed for whose repose the congregation is praying, it gives one a bit more perspective on what is taking place.
During all this my eye was drawn to the family of the deceased. Quite understandably, their faces were the picture of anguish and despair. The only hope which was being offered to them, however, was in the work of performing the Mass, and in praying that their son’s soul would rest in peace. Even the little bit of Gospel given to them earlier in the service during the readings was taken away during the celebration of the Mass, by the lack of certainty that he would “rest in peace.”
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation (Romans 5:1-11).
Being the obstinate and hateful Confessional Lutheran that I am, I was one of only two police officers who did not participate in the Eucharist that day. With the words of the Augsburg Confession in my head, there I sat, I could do nothing else, God help me! Amen!
Scripture teaches that we are justified before God, through faith in Christ, when we believe that our sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. Now if the Mass takes away the sins of the living and the dead simply by performing it, justification comes by doing Masses, and not by faith. Scripture does not allow this (AC XXIV 28-29).
Because of our disobedient first parents, we have to deal with sin and death. Sin, after the fall, became a part of the human nature. And, while it is true that everyone must die, death does not have the same meaning for those who trust in Christ. This is what all those gathered to “celebrate the life” of Officer Smith desperately needed to hear. This is what I wanted Officer Smith’s parents to hear about their son, a baptized child of God.
St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians the following, my favorite passage of Scripture:
I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:50-57).
For those who do not know Jesus Christ, who do not believe and trust in him as their redeemer, the prospect is grim. Death, for these people, remains the victor. Scripture says that they will experience eternal death. In the shadow of this prospect, the wake room and funeral service becomes an extremely cold, dark and dismal place.
…He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” (Revelation 21:7-8).
The Christian, however, can look death in the eye unafraid. To the Christian, death is more than a consequence of original sin and a fallen creation; more than the cessation of life. It is the portal to life everlasting and a relationship with the Creator as such a relationship was intended to be. No suffering, no pain; only eternal joy with God and all the saints forever.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true” (Revelation 21:3-5).
For the unbeliever, the traditional wake is appropriate. An entire life summed up by a bulletin board full of old photographs and a coffee room filled with sad, frightened people discussing everything but that which is in the parlor. For the Christian, it is inappropriate, as they have, in their baptism, passed from death to life. By their physical death, the deceased Christian has passed from this life to life eternal. The Christian wake and funeral, though an outlet for grief and mourning is, and rightly should be, also a celebration of Christ’s victory over death and the grave by his resurrection – the anticipation that those who trust in him as the atonement for their sins will live forever as well. The Christian funeral can be called a celebration of life. It is a celebration of the life Christ has won for us on the cross, without any merit or worthiness in us.
Death is not good. God, however, has taken what is evil and turned it to our benefit, by the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection of the body and life everlasting are sure and certain to those who trust in him; to those who remain faithful unto death. Therefore, for the Christian, especially when confronting death, the words of St. Paul should provide us strength, consolation and comfort:
Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).
Concordia Publishing House. Luther’s Small Catechism. Translated by Concordia Publishing House. Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1991.
McCain, Paul Timothy, Robert Cleveland Baker, Gene Edward Veith, and Edward Andrew Engelbrecht, . Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. Translated by William Hermann Theodore Dau and Gerhard Friedrich Bente. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005.
Roman Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. Rome: Urbi et Orbi Communications, 1994.
 Ex opere operato – by the outward act. Scripture certainly teaches that the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace and that the chief blessing of it is the forgiveness of sins, which Christ’s body and blood have won for us on the cross. Forgiveness of sin, life and salvation are certainly not given simply by the eating and drinking (the outward act), but by believing in the words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,” along with the eating and drinking. Whoever believes these words has exactly what they say: “forgiveness of sins” (Concordia Publishing House 1991).
 McCain, Paul Timothy, Robert Cleveland Baker, Gene Edward Veith, and Edward Andrew Engelbrecht, . Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. Translated by William Hermann Theodore Dau and Gerhard Friedrich Bente. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005.