Even were I not a Baptist, though, I am not sure I could say ‘happy Reformation day’. Surely if Reformation day is to be marked, it should be only partly, at most, in celebration? The church was split, not reformed, by Luther’s intervention. Of course, the recovery and foregrounding of crucial gospel truths should be remembered (and yes, justification sola fide is at least a, if not the, ‘articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae’…) – but is Reformation Day not as much a time to mourn our divisions, to fast and pray that all who are baptised in the triune Name may together confess one Lord, one faith, and one gospel, and share one Eucharist around one table?
‘Happy Reformation Day’ sounds to me like saying ‘Happy Ash Wednesday’ – it is just the wrong salutation.
I recently experienced an extraordinary week, liturgically speaking. I had not expected ever to see its like again.
On a weekday at a lovely country church in Virginia, I (along with a very large gathering) attended the funeral of one of our old friends, an outstanding churchman and servant of the Lord. Arriving early, I sat down to read the program. I could hardly believe my eyes. There were no “reflections,” no “remembrances,” no “eulogies.” There were hymns, Scripture, prayers, the Creed, the commendation…nothing more. I looked again. At the top of the program it did not say “the celebration of the life of…” It said, “The Burial of the Dead, Rite One, Book of Common Prayer.” At my age (76), with thoughts of the end of life becoming more frequent, it was an almost inexpressible comfort to know that this great service still has a future and that not everyone is afraid of the burial of the dead.
When the actual coffin rolled in, my eyes filled…it has been so long since I have seen that happen. It was preceded by the rector, of course, reading the traditional verses, and the large family followed. The hymns had been chosen by the deceased man himself, and reflected both his love of Jesus and his faith in the resurrection. The Gospel reading was the raising of Lazarus, an unusual and very impressive choice.
After the service, everyone walked out of the door, to the tolling of the bell, directly into the churchyard where, with the traditional graveside prayers, the body was laid to rest. That is almost never possible today, but when it is, there really is nothing more perfect. Soil had been brought from the departed man’s beloved farm to put in the grave, and a shovel provided for any who cared to remain and offer this last token of love and farewell.
Only God means what he says so that what he says can be taken literally. God’s “literalism,” the fact that God’s intentions need no bridge to be actualized, means God’s speech - God’s sentences - need no translation. In contrast, we mortals live at a distance from one another as well as ourselves, and that is why we have to write sentences.
LORD, with what care hast thou begirt us round !
Parents first season us : then schoolmasters
Deliver us to laws ; They send us bound
To rules of reason, holy messengers,
Pulpits and sundayes, sorrow dogging sinne,
Afflictions sorted, anguish of all sizes,
Fine nets and stratagems to catch us in,
Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,
Blessings beforehand, tyes of gratefulnesse,
The sound of glorie ringing in our eares ;
Without, our shame ; within, our consciences ;
Angels and grace, eternall hopes and fears.
Yet all these fences and their whole aray
One cunning bosome-sinne blows quite away.
Life is a rehearsal… the habits of rehearsal are everything we do in life, and I’m very affected by a lot of stories that encourage me in the belief that most of my life is preparation for crucial moments. I’m not saying I’ve reached a defining moment in my life, but I’ve reached some fairly crucial moments where I had to act from memory… .
You’re in a hospital, you’re holding the hand of an 82-year-old woman. All her family are around the intensive care unit, and you know that they’ve just unhooked the machines, so she’s got 45 minutes until she’s going to stop breathing. How do you fill that 45 minutes? That’s what you go to seminary for, to know how to fill that 45 minutes.
I’d say the first thing you do is you sing. You recall something that has been significant in the worshipping life of everybody there, and you sing that, and it puts you in touch with good things about the richness that this woman has brought to everybody’s life. And it’s also a prayer, but it’s a prayer that you know that the woman maybe can still hear, because hearing and touch are really among the last senses to go.
So if you’d never learned that hymn – in other words, if you hadn’t rehearsed – how could you ever sing it? So you think, ‘Well, why do we go – as you say to teenagers – why do we go every Sunday and we sing the same boring old hymns?’ Well, there’s an answer for you: because one day you’ll be in hospital with an 82-year-old woman — and it could be me, actually, that woman — and you’ll have 45 minutes until she dies, and you’ll be gathered around with everybody, and everyone will be weeping but wanting something important, and you’ll think, ‘Well, that’s why we sang those hymns, wasn’t it?’