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Perhaps it was because of Dorothy. The day prior having completed the funeral committal service five years in the making. Is it wrong as a minister to have had a favorite funeral? Or maybe better put, a favorite parishioner? Dorothy was that for me and in her I found a kind of kindred spirit. In life she was feisty and opinionated; we could easily discus theology or politics, conversation that came with ease and in my experience not common between a woman of her years and the pastor almost a third her age. She was strong, a wounded catholic, long ago having left the church, but never its faith. As her days were waning and she was in hospice care she asked that I come and have a chat with her. As always, our talk was spirited and eclectic, but ultimately, she needed to make her last confession. It was never said as such, but it was what it was. A few days later she went on to the nearer presence of the Lord. Her family and friends gathered and we celebrated her life with a Christian funeral but her ashes were to be interred at a later date. For a variety of reasons much time passed and I would relocate, yet incidentally, only twelve minutes away from the Brooklyn cemetery where the family plot lay. When Dorothy’s daughter called and asked if I would say a blessing as the last of her ashes were placed in the plot I readily agreed. So, perhaps it was for Dorothy.
Or perhaps it was nostalgia and sentimentality. As a preacher throughout the entire season of Advent and in preparation for Christmas I have almost been harping on the need to go beyond sentimentalism in our observance of the holidays. An easy trap, and in and of itself, not entirely wrong the sentimental aspects of the season. And with the presence of traditions—in homes and families, communities and churches—we are sort of awash in nostalgia. Again, it’s not necessarily wrong or bad. Just misleading if that’s where we leave our Advent preparations and Christmas celebrating. Focusing on the coming of Christ into our world, both his initial birth and ultimate return, as well as upon the mystery of the incarnation demands of us a deeper encounter. And yet maybe, with the setting and the music and the poetry and the flood of memories they brought I had given myself over to nostalgia and sentimentality. For this was my congregation’s “biggest” worship service of the year. Tradition has it here at Trinity that the evening of the Fourth Sunday of Advent we have this beautiful service of lessons and carols, a visiting choir sings a Christmas cantata, and most especially, we dim the sanctuary lights and commence the lighting of a multitude of candles, all very German. So perhaps it was the coming together of all those things and sentimentalism got the best of me.
It happened during the bidding prayer. I was using an order of worship adapted from the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols used at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, the format having become familiar to me during my Hope College Christmas Vespers days. In a perfectly fine manner I began the prayer, “Beloved in Christ…” and proceeded through the various intercessions. But when I arrived at the portion,
“Lastly let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that multitude which no person can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom we for evermore are one…”
my voice waivered and cracked, and almost consumed with emotion I struggled through those lines to compose myself, hastening to get us—to get myself—to the corporate Lord’s Prayer. Now, as I began, perhaps my emotional response was due in part to the previous day’s funeral committal service as well as to some lingering sentimentalism and nostalgia during the worship service. Certainly, as the years swiftly move those whom I know who dwell “upon another shore and in a greater light” become more numerous, and because of that there is a melancholic joy that the holidays impart. But in retrospect, I think there’s more to it than that.
I’m not sure fully but there’s something very communal about the incarnation. Sure, the incarnation is about God with us in bodily form. And yes, seems as though I’ve heard it said, “God becomes like us so that we can become like God” or some such phrase harkening to John 1:12-13: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” In the incarnation God’s redeeming presence in Christ is at work reconciling the creation. We get that. We often echo the words of Heidelberg 1: “I am not my own, but belong body and soul…” But the I is not just an I, but a we. We belong, body and soul, to Christ. We who have become children of God, also belong to one another our sisters and brothers. If the Gospel writer John is right in saying that the incarnation is used in part to make us children of God granting us some sort of union with Christ, then there is also some sort of communion with our siblings. In the incarnation is the literal body of Christ. And mysteriously, also the body-of-Christ-communion-of-saints-the-church.
For some reason it hit me emotionally that night, this communal we thing that is so much bigger than myself, that connects me to you and so many others. And I suppose this has been a way of processing it, the incarnation and the communion of saints and all of it. I’d welcome your processing it with me.