It often takes time, in some instances perhaps more than it should, but eventually the light does go on in my head. Such was the case at a funeral I attended earlier this spring. As I was reading the bulletin, I came across this:
An invitation is extended to all who have shared in the comfort of (name)’s service to join the family for a luncheon in the school gymnasium immediately after the cemetery service has concluded.
And suddenly the light went on. Why a meal after the funeral, but none during the funeral?
Not that I am against potluck dinners after a funeral service. Some of the best potluck dinners I have had have come after funerals. Besides, the ladies put in much time to prepare and serve these as an act of love to both the family and the deceased. And a potluck dinner after the funeral can play a role in the healing process, as the family relaxes and reminisces with relatives, members and friends.
My complaint is with the absence of a meal during the funeral itself. Why are congregations so willing to put in the time and the effort that is required to serve a potluck dinner and yet so hesitant to serve the meal which Irenaeus called “the Medicine of Immortality?” Oh, I realize there are some practical concerns that need to be worked out. Just to give two, how can the practice of closed communion be implemented with all the visitors? Also, what is the best way to get the communicants past the casket and up to the Altar? (In smaller church buildings this can pose a problem.) Yet the biggest hindrance to a Funeral Mass it seems, is not a practical concern at all, but rather a lack of good catechesis. So many Lutherans do not even think of celebrating the Lord’s Supper in connection with their loved one’s funeral. The thought never crosses their minds, because they were never properly catechized. Should some pastor bring the subject up, the response will often range from, “We’ve never done it that way, Pastor,” to the ever popular, “That’s what the Roman Catholics do!”
Clearly, catechesis is needed in this regard. Indeed, as more Lutheran pastors and Lutheran congregations re-evaluate the evangelical-catholic, thus Lutheran, practice of an every Lord’s Day celebration of the Sacrament, the time seems right to consider the benefits of also celebrating the Feast before the feast.
Few dispute this. But how are we to understand it? Not simply that the Evangelical-Lutheran Church has sacraments, nor that we use them occasionally, nor that our knowledge of the Sacraments is higher than it is in other churches, nor that it is more developed than in other Protestant churches. Rather, the Evangelical-Lutheran Church is a sacramental church in this sense that the sacraments are the heart and center of our faith. We Lutherans not only have them right; we use them in the right way.
Now to say this, might suggest that we have got it (doctrine) right and do it (practice) in the right way. But that is not what this means. Rather, the Mass is at the heart and center of our faith, not Bible study, preaching, prayer offices not anything but the sacraments. We are defined as the Evangelical-Lutheran Church by the fact that we offer the sacraments freely and preach about them and revolve our whole worship around them.
Some dispute this. They say that the biggest contribution of Lutheranism to the church was preaching.1 But to Luther and the generation of Lutherans that followed him it was unthinkable to have a service without sacraments, as unthinkable as a service without preaching. 2 Together these form the heart and core of our faith. Only to understand this, is to understand the Mass.
Unfortunately, the sacrament eventually fell into disuse among Lutherans in America for these four reasons:
1. Congregations, which fought over being called “confessional,” no longer read the Confessions.
2. The sacrament could be celebrated only when an ordained minister was present. However at this time many were circuit pastors serving many congregations and could not make it to all the congregations every Sunday. Thus for practical reasons, the celebration of the sacrament decreased.
3. Pietism and Rationalism got a stranglehold on the Lutheran Church. Preaching took over as the prime activity in the Mass and not sacramental-Christological preaching, but preaching that “warms the heart.”
4. Thanks to Pietism, one had to get “worked up” to feel the need for Communion before he went. 3
It is really no surprise then that among Lutherans today, the suggestion of a Funeral Mass often meets with a negative response. Bad preaching, catechesis and practice have all combined over the years to destroy “Lazarus’ hunger.” No longer do we desire “to be fed the crumbs which fall from the rich man’s table” (Lk 16:2). Instead, the sad truth of the matter is that the majority of Lutherans prefer to fast rather than to feast.
In a parable to the multitudes, our Lord had this to say:
The kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who arranged a marriage for his son and sent out his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding; and they were not willing to come. Again, he sent other servants, saying, “Tell those who are invited, ‘See, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and fatted cattle are killed, and all things are ready. Come to the wedding,” (Matthew 22:1-4).
Our Lord often pictures the Mass as a wedding feast, that is, a celebration of the marriage of Christ to his beloved bride the church, a marriage that took place by Holy Baptism (Eph. 5:25-27). Here is the good news. He invites us to be guests at this wedding feast. “Come to the wedding,” he says to us through his servants, his ordained ministers.
The Reverend Fr. John Fenton has noted that a feast consists of five elements: good company, good conversation, good music, no clock, and at the center of it all, for it is, after all, a feast, good food. So it is with the wedding feast we call the Mass. Dr. Arthur Just writes:
Jesus’ continuing practice of teaching and eating with his disciples at the table has given the church the pattern for its liturgical worship. Acts 2:42,46; 20:7 confirm that from the beginning the church followed the divine pattern through worship that included teaching and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Worship in the NT Church is a continuing table fellowship with God that reaches back into the OT and looks ahead to the eschatological wedding supper (Is. 25:6-9; Re. 19:6-9), offering a foretaste of the feast to come. 4
Since it is the wedding feast to which our Lord so graciously invites us, the Mass also consists of those five elements: Good company, The Bridegroom himself is present with us, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who comes to us in the concrete forms of water, Word, and consecrated Bread and Wine. Yes, it is true, as God he is everywhere and so always with us. But here at his wedding feast, the Bridegroom is present for us and for our salvation. Good conversation, not just idle chatter, but our Lord’s, “I love you in Holy Baptism with a love that begets, in Holy Absolution with a love that reassures, in Holy Communion with a love that feeds and nourishes and sustains.” And we express our love in return by our prayers and our hymns of praise. Good music that does not seek to manipulate our behavior through our emotions, but that proclaims God’s love for us in Christ and then directs us to the sacraments, where our Lord is for us. No clock, how many wedding feasts have you attended that last only one hour? And good food, indeed, the very best of foods, as the Bridegroom serves his beloved Bride his very Body that was given and his very Blood that was shed for the forgiveness of sins and life with God.
So “come to the wedding,” Jesus says. Celebrate the Mass in which I am not only preached into you, but also actually given to you to eat and to drink for life!” Sadly, in Jesus’ parable, most who were invited to come rejected the king’s gracious invitation to their demise. Sadder yet is the fact that so many today cannot come because the king’s servants are not serving the feast. His ministers are not offering the Mass. This is also true when it comes to funerals, as so many ministers today prefer to offer the bereaved a junk food diet of sappy sentimentalism and endless eulogies rather than the Body and Blood of their Savior.
It was a young, non-denominational (translate: Arminian) preacher who brought this point home to me in a most unusual way. I had just concluded the Funeral of one of my elderly members, when he came up to me, took my hand and as he shook it, said, “Tell them how to get it! Tell them how to get it!” Then he walked away before I could say a word. Now I knew what he meant, that it was not enough to just tell the bereaved that Christ died to win forgiveness for them. They should then be invited to make a personal decision for Christ. That is what he wanted me to tell them.
Of course I just brushed it off, because I am, after all, a Lutheran pastor who “preaches God’s Word in its truth and purity,” and he didn’t – indeed, he couldn’t. What I never expected was that years later his words would come back to me, not as he meant them, but in an entirely different way. For the man was right about one thing. It is not enough just to tell the people that Jesus died for them. That is only part of the Gospel. Rather, the forgiveness Jesus died to win for all he gives to the sinner through the Holy Sacraments that he might have communion with God. That is the full Gospel, and more than once it has brought back to my mind the words of that young, non-denominational, thoroughly Arminian pastor: “Tell them how to get it!” or to express it far better, “Preach them to the Sacrament,” and then, by all means, give it to them!
St. Paul writes these words that are often heard during the Committal Service: “’O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?’ The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Death brings more than sorrow. It also brings fear. As we stand before the lifeless body, we know that someday that will be our body, because “The wages of sin is death.” Even more frightening is that because of the sin we are, our death should be the hell of the rich man, who “cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame’” (Luke 16:24). That is what the Apostle means when he writes, “The sting of death is sin.”
“But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” This victory comes from the forgiveness of sins, which our Lord Jesus Christ purchased with his holy, precious Blood. And those who have been given this forgiveness have been given the victory over sin and death. Dr. Luther comments, “That, we say, is verily the treasure, and nothing else, through which such forgiveness is obtained… For here in the Sacrament you are to receive from the lips of Christ forgiveness of sin which contains and brings with it the grace of God and the Spirit with all his gifts, protection, shelter, power against death and the devil and all misfortune.” 5
Tell me, can you think of a better way to deal with death’s sting at a Funeral Mass than to celebrate the Sacrament? But St. Paul has more to tell the Corinthians, and as you read these words, note the imagery he uses: “So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:42-44).
When Jesus was buried, his tomb was in a garden. Why do you suppose the Holy Spirit thought it important to tell us this? It was not just to fill in a little detail. Understand the Holy Spirit never wastes his breath. Jesus’ burial in a garden is a very important bit of information, for a garden is where the seed is planted. After that seed dies, or decays, it sprouts into a living plant that comes out of the ground. Now compare that to Jesus. When he was buried, he was dead, a lifeless body put into the tomb. On the third day he “sprouted as seed” – that is to say, he rose to life, for he is the Life (John 14:6), and came out of the tomb. Thus the place where he was buried is rightly called a garden.
So it will be with our burial. That which is sown is raised, Paul says, no less than three different times. It is raised not just to be alive, for finally all the dead will come out of their graves alive on the Last Day, but the Christian, whose dead body is sown into the ground as a seed, is raised “in incorruption, in power, as a spiritual body,” the Apostle declares, which to put it very simply means, to eternal life.
How can this be? Think of a seed. It sprouts to life after it dies and decays, because the Creator has put life into it. So it is with the Christian. He who dies and is buried will on the Last Day be raised to life, because the Life has been put into him. By means of the Holy Sacrament, he has eaten the very Body and has drunk the very Blood of Christ, so that Christ now lives in him. Therefore when he is buried as a seed, it is done in the hope that he too will “sprout” – that is, be raised to eternal life.
How fitting and reassuring it is, then, for the bereaved to receive the Life into their own flesh, as they get ready to sow the body of their loved one as a seed into the ground. But there is still the pain, the loss that causes us to miss our loved one. To deal with such pain, many go out to the cemetery, thinking that it is there where they can be closest to him - not so.
If you really want to be with him, then come to Mass. Let me repeat that. If you want to be with your loved one who died in the Lord, you can do so, not by going out to the cemetery, but in God’s House, during the Mass. Don’t be shocked by that remarkable statement. It is, after all, what God’s people have been chanting in the Mass for centuries, “Therefore with angels and arch-angels and with all the company of heaven we laud and magnify your glorious name, evermore praising you and saying: Holy, holy, holy Lord God of heavenly hosts. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!” 6
I recall an artist’s rendition of the Holy Mass. In the center was the Lamb, for Christ is at the center of the Mass. He absolves, he preaches and is preached, and he gives out his Body and his Blood, through the mouth and the hands of his ordained ministers. Around the front of the Altar were gathered the living members of the church who were there to receive the Holy Feast. “Closing the circle” behind the Altar were angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven. This is the reality of the Mass. The whole church in heaven and on earth is present around Christ.
So it is at the Funeral Mass. Your loved one who died in Christ lives and is with you singing - dare we say it? - at his own funeral. That is why I say to you again. If you want to see him, then do not go to the cemetery. Go instead to the Mass, where the whole company of heaven is singing together with the whole church on earth the song on loan from angels, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of heavenly hosts. The whole earth is full of your glory.” 7
If a potluck dinner after the funeral is useful and worth the effort, then how much more beneficial is the Funeral Mass, in which we are fed our Savior’s Body and Blood, for this is the Feast of forgiveness that removes the sting of death. This is the Feast of Life, by which the Life is planted into our bodies to assure them of a resurrection to eternal life. This is the Feast before the feast that gives us a foretaste of that Feast, as the whole church in heaven and on earth gathers together to celebrate. §
1 I’m sure the comment will be made that I am elevating the Sacrament over preaching. So let me emphasize, as we have been all along in the MM, that you can’t have one without the other, as Rev. P. Berg correctly stated in the keynote article of Vol. 1, no. 1: “The Supper without preaching can lead to mindless mysticism. The preaching without the Supper can lead to pedantic moralism” (p. 2).
2 Our Lutheran forefathers often spoke of the twin towers, or mountains, of the Service “with one slightly higher than the other” (Loehe). They are preaching and the Sacrament.
3 All these came from a misunderstanding of Luther, when he stated in his introduction to the Small Catechism that one should commune at least three times a year. This got turned around to, “One should commune only three times a year.”
4 Dr. Arthur Just, Concordia Commentary: Luke, Vol. 1, p. 241.
5 AE 35, p. 106.
6 Preface and the Sanctus of the Common Service.
7 Based on Isaiah 6:3 and Psalm 118:26.