THE ISSUE AT HAND
Within the corpus of liturgical services in the Eastern Church, no one rite would be expected to draw as thoroughly and vividly the stark contrast between death and resurrection as the funeral. This thematology of opposites, however, and their related sub-themes (e.g. despair and hope, darkness and life, finality and perpetuity), in the Byzantine funeral rite, always appear so far polarized that the contrasting elements never seem to engage with each other. Christ’s manhandling of death at Golgotha and His prodigious inauguration of the life of the Kingdom, sealed by His three-day Resurrection, the sine qua non of the Christian faith (1 Corinthians 15:14), remains the ἐφάπαξ, trans-historical event from which the Church derives her eschatological orientation. But in the funeral rite, as one carefully probes the rubrical and hymnological flow, quite noticeable is a disheartening and unsettling disconnect between the positive theme of eternal life and the negative notion of the crude finality of bodily death. The latter is not expressed as the portal for the former; it is stripped of any positive value and relegated to a completely undesirable event. Both themes are juxtaposed clumsily in the rite – the objects of two separate, disjointed reflections, hardly indicative of an organic synthesis.
What key factors, historical and otherwise, prompted this uncomfortable coexistence and what warrants that it necessarily remain this way ad aeternam? If Sabaite or Studite hymnology has supplied a good portion of the content of the funeral service since, according to Karen Westerfield Tucker, it was “shaped to correspond with the more elaborate structure used for the regular daily services of the Church, probably under monastic influence” in the eighth century, why has the Church not yet edited the official texts to secure a more balanced thematology, at least for parish usage? Why does each funeral service celebrated by Eastern churches in the twenty-first century still seem locked in a different epoch (which for some inexplicable reason the Church has romanticized), expressing a whirlwind of disproportionate ideas that derive from unexamined and unaltered liturgical texts, concepts more familiar to Byzantine or Palestinian monks and reflective in fact of a late medieval rural society?
Robert Taft has taught us that indeed, there is no such thing as an ideal age for liturgy and that history does not necessarily provide us with models for imitation. As he has said time and time again, “The past is always instructive but never normative.” And this inalienable truth testifies to the fact that “Tradition is the church’s self-consciousness now of that which has been handed on to it not as an inert treasure, but as a dynamic principle of life,” the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church working with us in “creative continuity” with the past. So, the bottom line is that in its current state, the funeral service of the Orthodox Church is gravely wanting, both theologically and pastorally, and requires a serious thematic overhaul. In this series of articles, I intend to address this important issue responsibly and offer a few helpful observations and suggestions by way of liturgical renewal that draws on the inherent value of a Spirit-filled and didactic past that can regulate present and future practice.
This series was excerpted and modified from a larger paper (“Revisiting the Orthodox Funeral Service: Resurrecting a Positive Thematology in the Rite for the Dead”), delivered at the International Conference on Liturgical Renewal, held at Hellenic College and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, Brookline, MA, from March 15-16, 2013. Copyright © 2013 by V. Rev. Professor Dr. Stelyios S. Muksuris, Ph.D. All rights reserved.
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