In Sure and Certain Hope

Man that is born of a woman has but a short time to live and is full of misery. Like a flower, he blossoms and then withers. Like a shadow he flees and never stays.

We gathered round the grave. Fifty of us, or thereabouts. Silent. Watchful. The fine, misty rain had stopped. Faint patches of blue peered through the ash grey clouds. The air was still, the roar of the road dulled by the trees. By the grave, the coffin, with its simple brass plaque: a name, two dates, and a stark reminder: “Aged 25.” In the coffin, what now remained of a life that had been beautiful but short. Too short. And filled for too long with suffering. Nearly two decades long. Too long.

In the midst of life we are in death; to whom can we turn for help, but to you, O Lord, who are justly angered by our sins? Yet, Lord God most holy, Lord most mighty, O holy and most merciful Saviour, deliver us from the bitter pains of eternal death.

You know, O Lord, the secrets of our hearts; hear our prayer, O God most mighty; spare us, most worthy Judge eternal; at our last hour let us not fall from you, O holy and merciful Saviour.

In the church, we had defied the sentimental contemporary preference for funerals that do no more than celebrate the life of the deceased. The service had woven together thanksgiving for God’s gifts of life and love, with the reality of a long-term illness and an early death. We had not flinched from acknowledging the sin through which death entered God’s good creation. Nor from the just anger of a holy and mighty God. We had refused to avert our eyes from the bitter power of our enemy death, or from the bitter pains of eternal death.

Now, we stood at the burial ground, silent for a moment around this deep, neat hole. The pallbearers began to lower the coffin.

It has pleased Almighty God, in his great mercy, to take to himself the soul of our dear sister. We therefore commit her body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. In sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. He will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by his mighty power that enables him to subject all things to himself.

Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer was designed to provide pastoral care for an entire nation. In its occasional offices, Cranmer gave a way for the English people to organise and interpret the major events of their lives according to the gospel of Jesus Christ. In his baptismal rite, life begins with the promise of new birth by water and the Spirit. The marriage service reaffirms the place of man and woman in the natural order, celebrates the fundamental familial relationships of human life, which were consecrated by Christ in his first miracle in Cana of Galilee, and looks ahead to the eschatological order that will be inaugurated by the marriage supper of the Lamb. The Order for the Visitation of the Sick focuses (to a fault) on the need for repentance from sin in preparation for death. And then, as life began with the promise of new life, so, in the Order for the Burial of the Dead, life ends with the promise of eternal life.

The predecessor of Cranmer’s burial service, the medieval requiem, had a strongly pastoral purpose: to care for the deceased as the priest led the mourners in praying for the departed soul’s repose. Cranmer’s liturgy is also strongly pastoral in intent, but in step with the Reformation’s recovery of the biblical doctrine of justification, the orientation has changed. Deceased believers do not need our prayers; they have passed immediately into their Saviour’s presence, where they rest in bliss, awaiting the final resurrection. The focus of pastoral care therefore shifts from the soul of the departed to the souls of the congregation: reminding us of the awesome realities of sin, death, and judgement; reassuring us with the strong comfort of the resurrection. As a result, Cranmer’s service has an unflinching seriousness and intensity, coupled with a joyful and confident hope. Never does Jesus appear more glorious and filled with love and power than when believers gather at a Protestant graveside.

I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “for they rest from their labours.”

Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy Name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread
and forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power,
and the glory, forever and ever. Amen

The language has been lightly updated, but the liturgy is unmistakably Cranmer’s: simple, direct, steeped in Scripture. For more than 450 years, this is how the English have buried their dead. And so, as we stand at this graveside and lay to rest the mortal remains of a sister in Christ, we are reminded that this grave does not stand alone. Millions of English Christians have passed through the bitter pains of death, and their souls have entered into rest with their Lord. With these words, their lifeless bodies have been laid to rest in sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead. We therefore share a sure and certain hope that one day not just this saint, but countless saints will rise. And so Cranmer’s funeral liturgy places us once again in the middle of our baptismal confession, believing in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the dead, and the life everlasting.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all, ever more. Amen.

*This post has been reposted from our previous blog on wordpress.

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Matthew Mason is the Rector at Christ Church Salisbury in England. He is a fellow of the St. John Fellowship of the Center For Pastor Theologians. He is a Ph.D. Candidate at Aberdeen University.