THE GOSPEL IN THE BURIAL SERVICE
Our Anglican burial service, unlike the Roman requiem, is not for the dead, but for the living. At funerals, we feel upset at having lost loved ones; moreover, facing death as the one certain fact of all our lives, we feel shaken inside, and start wondering what death will mean for us. The service applies the Gospel of resurrection to our state of mind.
Assuming that a Christian is being buried, it shows us his risen Saviour, and then leads us, first to give thanks for his salvation (in the committal, and the two main prayers), and second to pray our way into that same salvation for ourselves. Praise for the dead, and then prayer for the living, is the pattern.
Three voices sound as the service opens. I am the resurrection and the life he that believeth in me, thou he were dead, yet shall he live this promise is the word of the Lord Jesus. I know that my Redeemer liveth in my flesh shall I see God this is the witness of the Christian who now sleeps in Jesus. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord this is the mourner’s acknowledgement, through his grief, of a sovereign God’s goodness.
Starting from the fact that to us, who are in God’s hands for life and death, Jesus Christ offers himself as the resurrection, the service now becomes a liturgical journey from spiritual death to spiritual life. Apart from the committal of the body, which is really a parenthesis and in any case happens separately, the service falls into three sections, embodying the evangelical sequence: sin, grace, faith.
First comes Psalm 39 or Psalm 90. Why these? Because both recognize the prospect of bodily death as revealing, not merely our dependence on God for bodily life, and the folly of self-sufficiency, but also God’s wrath against us for our sins. We consume away in thy displeasure, and Thou dost chasten man for sin, and Deliver me from all mine offences. The sting of death, the thing that makes it dreadful, is sin, and God’s judgment upon it. We cannot face death unafraid till our sin is dealt with.
After meditation on death comes proclamation of resurrection, as 1 Corinthians 15 is read. Jesus Christ has conquered death, and will raise the sinful sons of Adam into a new life of forgiveness and endless joy, here and hereafter. This is the message of grace.
So we pray that God will raise us from the death of sin unto the life of righteousness, that, dying in the true faith of thy holy name, we too may have our perfect consummation and bliss, both in body and soul, in thy eternal and everlasting glory. This is a prayer that we may be led to living faith in him who is the resurrection, and so be born again.
If people at funerals thought what they were saying and hearing, every funeral would be an evangelistic occasion! We should not think this strange; it is what the compilers of our Prayer book intended, and surely they were right.