For if we have been united with him in a death like his,
We will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. Romans 6:5 (NRSV)
As we maybe have a bit more space to reflect during the summer, I thought I would send you a meditation to ponder, knowing that we will begin an intentional discussion this fall on how we can understand the fullness of our identity in community. I begin with this small section of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, because it has a key for understanding the life-and hope-we all share.
When I was a young boy, every year I looked forward to going to the special “Homecoming Service” at Egypt Missionary Baptist Church, there in the country of Southeast Arkansas. My entire family would gather, and we would sing the old hymns and eat the family foods. It was a glimpse, of course, of that heavenly banquet where all are fed with much left over. After the service and singing, the worship continued as we all walked out into the graveyard with tools. There, all the members of the family spread out to clean the graves of our ancestors. To say that we Baptists didn’t practice the veneration of saints!
That is where I first learned the deeper nature of community, of our identity-our spiritual life-that is “hidden with Christ in God.”1 As I knelt by the graves of my great-great grandparents, I could hear – and feel – the old hymns pouring out of the open windows, wrapping around the tombstones, and flowing all around me. I realized that my ancestors sang these same hymns – and that we now sing them together. Such is the mystery of our faith.
In our Funeral Liturgy, there is an illuminating prayer that concludes the Prayers for the Departed:
Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to you our sister, who was reborn by water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism. Grant that her death may recall to us your victory over death, and be an occasion for us to renew our trust in your Father’s love. Give us, we pray, faith to follow where you have led the way; and where you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, to the ages of ages. Amen. 2
This prayer points to the reality which I experienced there in the weedy graveyard in those warm Spring months. Our Baptism, the sacramental reality that we all share through Jesus Christ, becomes a point that pulls all the threads of time together. At a loved one’s death, we become aware of the way their life is an icon of God’s grace. Through the particularity of their existence-their present moment- we recall or remember the “victory over death” given to us by Christ.3 The past is brought forward and made present. And further, this remembrance – this living recollection – guides our eyes and hearts to a greater understanding of our future. “Renew our trust” and “give us…faith to follow where you have led the way.”
Our liturgy is an amazing space, a shared experience that enables a new – refreshed – way of knowing ourselves, and God’s faithfulness toward us.4 Baptism, then, becomes the fulcrum on which our identity as a community finds its balance. It is through Christ that we come to experience true hope-hope that flows through life and into death-and promised life beyond.
As my high school English teacher, Mrs. Moyers, always taught me: oftentimes prepositions hold the key to understanding an idea. We see this in our Baptismal liturgy when the celebrant prays over the water:
We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit. 5
“In, by, and through,” I think, hold the key that opens the door to how we can truly find hope in the midst of death. In the water we can envision being buried. By our experience of dying to ourselves, we encounter the mystery of Christ’s willingness to die for us. Through this epiphany of Christ’s presence with us, we are illuminated by the Spirit, and we all share this reality. We come to understand that this “true presence” is the very beating heart of our identity as a community. We live together; we find hope together. In, by, and through.
I have tried to capture this epiphany, this realization, as best I can in this short poem:
A family tree
with many leaves,
some coming to bud
some turned to carved stone and brushed
by a young boy’s fingers
clearing away the accretions of years
to trace unknown truths
Jessie Craig, died February 1, 1969.
Veins still pulsing with life
drawn from unseen reservoirs
all things where
Sages tell of a story
about stones breaking forth
into life before.
Yet, we too easily
Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
Rector, Grace Episcopal Church
- Colossians 3:3, NRSV
- Book of Common Prayer, 498.
- The theological term we use here is anamnesis, this principle of collapsing time, as it were, and having the present moment contain the past significance as well as point toward the future culmination of the promise.
- Here, I think of Walter Brueggemann’s wonderful work on God’s hesed, God’s faithfulness through all generations.
- Book of Common Prayer, 306
- Here I think of the great Philippians hymn, 2:5ff, with St. Paul’s images around kenosis and self-emptying.