Monday, March 09, 2009

Memory Eternal

During the Theophany season, my wife and I hosted an open house which many families from our parish attended. Our dear friends, the godparents of our oldest daughter, also attended. Their younger child, James, pictured above with our younger daughter at the open house, recently lost his life in a tragic accident. We traveled to attend the funeral this weekend, at which I was honored to be able to chant part of the psalter over what is far and away the smallest casket I have ever seen. The Orthodox maintain that, though the spirit has departed the body, the body yet remains a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19), Whom Jamie received upon being baptized and chrismated, and communed with the precious and immaculate mysteries of the Body and Blood of our Lord and Victor over death, Jesus Christ. We thus pray the psalter in its entirety over the body as a means of commending it to God through the words that speak what it seems no other corpus of words can speak.

Last night, we prayed an extended panikhida (memorial service for the departed), parts of which were repeated in this morning's funeral service. The local mission's choir led us all in the well-known hymns and melodies, and the sound filled the spaces with sweet mourning. There is a sense in which liturgy carries one when one cannot carry oneself, and both the parents as well as their non-Orthodox family members and friends seemed to be carried along as well by the current of our common work, the refrain of "Give rest to the soul of the infant, O Lord" serving as the lapping of the waves that carressed the ragged, shocked souls there. Jamie's father had said in the week preceding the funeral that, if any good would come from this, that people would be touched by the Holy Spirit through the Church's offering of the babe to Her Lord; may his words be made true.

The service for the burial of an infant is uniquely comforting, for it is, in essence, the acknowledgement of a true saint in our midst, for God "hast accepted this undefiled infant...before he had been tempted by earthly sweetness, counting him worthy of eternal good things, as the lover of mankind." Indeed, the weeping is infinitely greater for Jamie's parents, as these verses exclaim:
No one is more pitiful than a mother,/
and no one is more wretched than a father,
for their inward beings are troubled/
when they send forth their infants before them./
Great is the pain of their hearts because of their children,/
and still more when these are pleasing of speech,/
as they call to remembrance/
their words with the song://
Alleluia.

For often before the grave they beat their breasts and say:/
"O my son, and sweetest child!/
Hearest thou not what thy mother says?/
Behold, also, the womb that bore thee./
Why speakest thou not with us,/
as once thou didst speak?/
But thout art silent/
and speaketh not with us://
Alleluia!"

"O God, God, Who hast summoned me;/
Be Thou the consolation of my household now,/
for a great lamentation has befallen them./
For all have fixed their gaze on me,/
having me as their only-begotten one./
But do Thou, Who wast born of a Virgin Mother,
refresh the inward parts of my mother,/
and bedew the heart of my father with this://
Alleluia!"
Yet in the weeping, the funeral lamentation is: alleluia. The priest of the mission then stood following the reading of the gospel and read what Audra and I consider to be the best sermon either of us have ever heard. He began by saying that, a week ago, little Jamie had been scooting around the floor of the mission in his cute little way, giving big sloppy smacks to the icons and the cross, as he had not yet learned how to purse his lips in a "proper" kiss. He reminded us of how we were to approach the kingdom of God as Jamie did, as a child, trusting in what God has given us through our baptism into and clothing with Christ, through His giving us the Holy Spirit in chrismation, through His abiding in us through the mysteries of His body and blood.

Jamie, he said, related to Christ more deeply than any of us there, as with age and intellect need not always come wisdom or spiritual maturity. He had just taken his first steps a few days before and had just begun to put partial words together, "yet what is walking," Father asked, "when you can run in the Kingdom of God? What is running, when you can fly in the celestial realms? What is speech, when the language of the Kingdom of Heaven is silence?" Jamie, he stressed, now gazed into the face of the Ancient of Days, who is perfect Love and Peace. His infancy, far from making him less in the Kingdom of Heaven, made him infinitely more, and he would carry the touches, the voices, the scents, and the sights of all those whom he had encountered in this life into the next, where he would meet his God and ours, and from whence he would await the day when, rising in the body, he would shine like Christ on Mount Tabor, revealing the glory of his Creator as one of His holy ones.

The little one's death cannot be explained away, cannot be dealt with with reasons. God does not dismiss our pain, nor does He give us theological syllogisms from which to derive some sort of artificial comfort. We must mourn. Yet, in that mourning, our God enters into our pain, enters into our life, and Himself suffers. The most eloquent word of the Cross is the silence of the dead Christ, for, in providing no words or explanations, He nonetheless travels the painful road with us, as us, helping us to see that this painful road will end in Tabor's glory. His mother, likewise, who watched her only Son die, shows us the way in which we can hold both suffering and peace in our hearts by clinging to the Cross.

Father then instructed us on what the Orthodox call "The Last Kiss." All Orthodox funerals are open-casket, yet Jamie had a shrowd over his face so that only his forehead showed. Following the hymns all who wish to do so may come and kiss the body, thus venerating it one last time as holy temple. After I kissed his forehead, my words to him were, "Dear child, may God give you rest 'till the day you breathe again."

May the infant James' memory be eternal, and may he pray for us all.

12 comments:

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Memory eternal!

Pray for us, dear child.

s-p said...

I pray I never have to chant and serve the funeral of an infant. Intellectually it is a blessed tragedy, I don't know how I could handle it. Indeed, pray for us who are not spared the tribulations required for our deification.

Josh said...

Thank you for this sobering but beautiful reflection David.
+Memory Eternal+

DebD said...

you said: The most eloquent word of the Cross is the silence of the dead Christ, for, in providing no words or explanations, He nonetheless travels the painful road with us, as us, helping us to see that this painful road will end in Tabor's glory.

Thank you. Memory Eternal to dear Jamie and prayers for the family.

David Bryan said...

Father John said that, actually; I'm just paraphrasing. Thank God for his servant, the priest John. And, yes, memory eternal.

Andrea Elizabeth said...

There are several of us who would like a copy of the homily, which I agree was the best I've ever heard. I'm glad you remembered some of the specifics so well and shared them here.

May God give peace and rest to the soul of the infant and his hurting family.

Andrea Elizabeth said...

p.s. I was thankful for Terry's son, John's, and your peaceful, composed chanting of the Psalms before the funeral.

Mimi said...

Oh Reader David, my heart hurts to read this post. May James' Memory be Eternal indeed.

elizabeth said...

Lord have mercy. Losing a child - heartbreaking. May God comfort in the midst. Memory Eternal.

Ian said...

A painful read on one level, but I thank you for your reflections which do bring hope and comfort.

May Jamie's memory be eternal! And prayers for his family and friends ascending from Down Under.

mrg54 said...

Pain and healing are shared in the Orthodox Community. We know however strong the pain, there is peace. We know also, that healing always comes from the Holy Spirit.

Jamie was a beautiful child and has now become a beautiful saint.

Victoria said...

Lord have mercy,
Lord have mercy,
Lord have mercy.