Singing in the Face of Death

Tonight my family is gathering in Minnesota to remember my uncle Ted, who died just over a month ago. He was too young – barely fifty – though people say he lived much longer than he expected. He loved the lake and the outdoors; he had a great sense of humor and was quick with a joke; and when I had just graduated from college and moved by myself to Minnesota for an internship, he made sure I was taken care of, whether by driving me to the grocery store or taking me to the movies on the weekend.

Ted was paralyzed in a diving accident when he was a young man, and apparently it’s very rare for someone with his degree of paralysis to live such a long and healthy life. Even so, it was a heartbreaking surprise.

Ted doesn’t have a “home church” with a priest or pastor on speed dial. And it’s Easter Vigil; all the priests and pastors we know are of course booked solid. So my family gathers in a funeral home tonight, leading the prayers themselves.

Grams & Ted, Christmas 2008

Grams & Ted, Christmas 2008

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Three years ago at Easter Vigil, I was on a plane to another funeral. My grandmother died in February 2012, and then (as now) we had to wait for the funeral until enough of us could make the trip. We waited for the holiday weekend. We waited for Easter.

It was the secular calendar that made us wait, trying to line up school schedules and leave from work. In some ways it’s not unlike winter deaths in cold climates, where folks wait out the winter until the ground thaws enough to bury their loved ones. And yet on the church calendar it is Easter, the highest of holy days, the most joyous celebration of new life and resurrection. It’s harder – no, stranger – to celebrate resurrection and death at the same time.

It seems so poetic, and yet for me it kind of just feels weird.

Sure, I know the theological rationales. Even before coming to seminary I’d heard over twenty years of Easter sermons. I can parrot back the main points: Christ’s resurrection is a foretaste of the resurrection that waits for us. Or a big, bold, decisive statement that God’s love is stronger than death—that no matter what darkness the world has to throw at us, it will always be less powerful and less real than the hope we have in Christ.

Which is easy enough to believe and to sing, most years. It’s easy to smell the lilies in the church or the honeysuckle in the garden and believe that this world has been and will continue to be redeemed. It’s easy to join friends and family around the Easter dinner table and believe that love is a force to be reckoned with. What kind of power could death have at this point? Where O death is now thy sting?

I love that line, part of a favorite Easter hymn. I usually love to sing those words in a teasing, snarky voice—take that, death! see how little power you have! When facing death right in the face—coming home from Easter morning mass with “alleluia” stuck in my head, back to my grandmother’s home where we were preparing for her funeral—it feels less mocking, more hollow, to sing. From where I sit, death has enough sting to go around.

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I can’t make it to this year’s funeral – since I have a full-time job now, and since Minnesota is a bit farther away than Arizona. What little I could do was send along a song. (Since all the church musicians are also busy tonight, they were planning a service without music.) So I agreed to make a few simple recordings.

I paged through the hymnal looking for old family favorites, but I also found myself looking in the Easter section. I found one that would be easy to play without much practice, and easy to sing along to if people wanted: “Alleluia, alleluia, give thanks to the risen Lord.”

Musically, it was the perfect song. But when I went to record it, I almost lost my nerve. Convenient timing or not, how could I sing this song for a funeral? One of the verses goes “We have been crucified with Christ; now we shall live forever.” How can I sing that for Ted, who lived so much shorter than forever?

It’s harder to sing alleluia now than it has been in other Easter seasons. I do know the song by heart though, from singing it in other years. And if Easter songs aren’t true now, what good are they? If now isn’t the time to sing loudly in the face of death—when is?

I spent my last year in seminary immersed in the psalms of lament. These ancient songs started with raw emotions—anger, grief, despair—but nearly always found their way back to hope. Even if that hope is hard-won. I was attracted to the psalms of lament because they’re acts of defiance. They contain curses and cries for help; they call God to account, reminding God to be the Presence of steadfast love that he has promised to be.

Maybe the hope is defiant too. Confident when there’s no good reason to be sure. That’s a song written on my heart as well: All of us go down to the dust, yet even at the grave we make our song…

Alleluia

Alleluia

Alleluia

Praise to his name.

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  1. Trackback: This Week’s Links « Timothy Siburg

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