Even Wearing Black the Church Shines

When I was young and foolish, it pleased me to consider that in the new Catholic dispensation, the robes for the priest at a funeral Mass were white, symbolic of the Resurrection, and not black, as before.  I remember those black robes, because sometimes when I was a boy and I showed up with my classmates at church before school started, the priest was saying a funeral Mass.  The black was sobering, a bit frightening.

I’m older now, and a day hardly goes by when I do not think about death.  The sun is sloping in the west.  I will soon reach the time when certain jobs around the house are not for me anymore – like climbing up on the roof to repair the shingles, as I am going to do next week, though my wife Debra will not be entirely pleased to hear it.

My father died in 1991, and my mother can no longer walk outdoors.  Of my 28 aunts and uncles, 5 remain; of my wife’s 28 aunts and uncles, only 4.  A few days ago, the aunt she loved the best, a mother to her when she was small, passed away suddenly and far away.

Though Aunt Jo was a church-attending Baptist and a kind and gentle woman, she had no funeral, and there was no burial.  We will have no place to lay some flowers and say a prayer for her soul.

I now wonder whether the aggressive cheer at funerals does justice to the feelings of the bereaved and to the full force of death.  Without the grace of God, the jaws of death yawn to swallow us whole, and after a few ticks of the clock, after those who remember us will also have passed away, our place shall know us no more.

Are we like children who keep the lights on and the television loud, because we dread the night and its silence?

And do we presume upon God’s gift?  I have no doubt that God has taken Aunt Jo to his bosom.  But when I prayed the old Office of the Dead, I was struck by the lessons for Matins, all from the Book of Job, to be heard in the early darkness before the sunrise.

They do not compromise with sorrow.  “Spare me, Lord, for my days are nothing,” the first lesson opens, starkly, as do all the lessons, without a prayer of absolution, or a blessing.

“What is man, that you make much of him, or set your heart on him?” (Jb. 7:16).  Such words do not ring with the wonder and joy of the psalmist, who adds that God has made man “a little less than the angels.” (Ps. 8:6)

Job dwells rather upon man’s inconsequence.  “For soon I shall sleep in the dust; and should you seek me in the morning, I shall be no more.” (7:21)

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Then comes the verse, also from Job, and it rings out like a bell tolling comfort in the night, the deeper the night, the greater the comfort:

I believe that my Redeemer lives, and that on the last day I shall rise from the earth,
And in my flesh I shall see God, my Savior.
It will not be some other, but I myself who shall see Him; my own eyes shall look upon Him.
And in my flesh I shall see God, my Savior.

The chasm between Job’s apparent hopelessness and this trumpet call of confidence, all the more powerful because it is so sudden, flings us from the infinitesimal to the infinite, from dust to the presence of God.

The next lesson returns us to sorrow, for Job cannot understand why he suffers when the wicked appear to prosper.  “I loathe my life,” he cries, “I will give myself up to complaint; I will speak from the bitterness of my soul.” (Jb. 10:1-2)

A brave man confronts the darkness.  The brave Church puts the strongest case for doubt, for despair – as Job on the dunghill, scraping his purulent flesh with the shard of a pot, cries out to God, even cries out against God.

Then comes the verse, again a surprise, one to bring us a fearful kind of joy:

You who raised Lazarus fetid from the tomb,
You, Lord, give them rest, and a place of pardon.
You who are to come to judge the living and the dead, to judge the world by fire,
You, Lord, give them rest, and a place of pardon.

This time we chant a meditation upon that mighty scene from the New Testament, the raising of Lazarus a monumento foetidum – literally, stinking from the tomb, for his body has lain there four days. (Jn. 11:39)

No prim turning aside, with perfume and flowers, from the brute fact of death and the decay of the flesh.  It is as if the Church says, “I know the worst, and Christ has overcome it.”

The third lesson resumes the second reading from Job, but now the poor man recalls both his frailty and the mercy and grace of God.  You might think the verse would continue on that cheerful note, but it returns us to reality – to ourselves, as much as to the departed:

Lord, when you come to judge the earth, where shall I hide from your wrathful countenance?
For I have sinned exceedingly in my life.
I am appalled at the sins I have committed, and I blush before you.  Do not condemn me when you come to judge.
For I have sinned exceedingly in my life.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.
For I have sinned exceedingly in my life.

That is just for matins when there is one nocturn, not three.  And yet I do not know of any poetic work that touches upon so many of the chords of human loss, of sin, and regret, and the plea and the hope for redemption.  Even when the Church wears black, she shines.

 

*Image: The Raising of Lazarus by Jan Lievens, 1631 [Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust, Brighton & Hove, England]

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.