Affirming the Resurrection of the Body

A homily given by Christopher L. Webber at the funeral of Ellen Keeney on March 27, 2013.

If we have to think about death – and we do –  there’s no better time than Holy Week because the essential message of this week is that death need not be meaningless,  need not be an end but a beginning.  Easter is the annual celebration  of that basic, core message of Christian faith: death has been conquered, the door to eternity is open.

I wish we had better words to use  because the more I think about it the more impossible it seems.  We read in the Bible about a heaven with streets of gold and gates of pearl where there is no need for a sun or moon, and that’s beautiful but it’s so far out of tune with our world that it’s hard to take it seriously. Those that described heaven that way did the best they could with what they knew. But they knew too little even about our world  and we know too much – and still too little.

How can we talk about a Biblical heaven  when we know the size of the universe, when we know about black holes and galaxies and spiral nebulae? Any words we have are like those an infant might use to describe a computer –  actually they could do it better than I can – but what language can we find that will work for us when it comes to death and life? How can we talk about heaven, about life after this earthly life, when we still have barely a beginner’s knowledge  even of this earth?

Let me read you some words of John Donne that may help. Even four hundred years later I don’t think we can do any better than this:

“In the first discoveries of the unknown parts of the world, the maps made were very uncertain, very imperfect. So, in the discovery of these new heavens and this new earth, our maps will be imperfect. It is said of old map-makers that when they had said all that they knew of a country, they said that the rest was possessed by giants or witches or spirits or wild beasts so that they could explore no further. So when we have traveled as far as we can with safety, that is as far as ancient or modern explorers lead us in the discovery of these new heavens and new earth, yet we must say at last that it is a country inhabited by angels and archangels, with cherubim and seraphim, and that we can look no further into it with these eyes. Where it is, we do not ask. We rest in this: that it is the habitation prepared for the blessed saints of God. In that heaven the moon is more glorious than our sun, and the sun as glorious as the one who made it. In this new earth all the waters are milk and all the milk is honey; all the grass is corn and all the corn is manna; all the clods of earth are gold and all the gold of countless carats; all the minutes are ages and all the ages eternity, everything is every minute in the highest exaltation, as good as it can be, and yet superexalted and infinitely multiplied by every minute’s addition; every minute is infinitely better than ever it was before.”

And having said all that, Donne goes on to say:

“Of these new heavens and this new earth we must say at last that we can say nothing.  For human eye has not seen nor ear heard nor heart conceived the state of this place.”

Of that heaven, the best we can say is  words fail us. But what else do we have?  Well, we have art and music, we have Picasso and Bach and Mozart who said things even John Donne couldn’t say. And symbols are a great help; the Catholic faith is big on material symbols. A former archbishop of Canterbury once said “Christianity is the most materialistic of the world’s religions.” Catholic Christianity is about symbols and signs and sacraments and the resurrection of the body.  It’s not about some sort of amorphous spirituality, but reality,  the only reality we know: the real, physical world around us that tells us so much more than words can ever express.

Consider the wedding ring, a sacramental symbol:  Ellen’s was made of an ancestor’s tie clip. It was rich in symbolism before she ever wore it.  And think how much more it came to mean  as the years went by. Think what that hard nugget of gold conveyed,  what it meant. You can’t see that or weigh it but it’s undoubtedly real, an imperishable reality,  or at least a reality that transcends language and art.

If a ring can contain and convey so much,  how much more the human body? Yes, the body ages and wears out and dies  but the reality it expresses and conveys grows and deepens and has a potential beyond imagining. The Creed we will say in a few minutes talks about the resurrection of the body, not the immortality of the soul.  It’s about the reality we know, not an imaginary something we don’t know.

I think people often make a mistake when they come together for a funeral and make it simply a trip down memory lane.  There’s a lot, of course, to remember,  a lot for which to give thanks, but maybe more important there’s a future to imagine if we can find ways to do it. After all, why would a God capable of creating a universe so vast create us simply for a brief sojourn on a medium size satellite of a minor star? We can do better ourselves.  We can create immortal works of art and music – well, we call them immortal,  but only because they have  a material existence in this world greater than ours – but we have a potential greater still;  either that or we’re wasting our time here today.

We’re here I’m sure to give thanks for the past, for all the love and joy that Ellen shared with us  all.  But even more we are here to give thanks for the future, to give thanks for the dim, shadowy, childhood knowledge we have of the future for which God made us and of which Ellen has already begun to understand more than all the saints and sages have ever known.

John Donne summed it up with this prayer:

“Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house of God and gate of heaven that we may dwell in that place where there is no cloud nor sun, no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light, no noise nor silence, but one equal music, no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession, no foes nor friends, but one equal communion, no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity, and keep us, Lord, so awake in the duties of our callings that we may sleep in your peace and wake in your glory to an unending possession of that realm which your Son our savior Jesus Christ has purchased for us with the price of his own blood.  Amen.

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