If there is any one thing which is the heart of the Christian faith, it is the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ – His self-raising, His rising again to life after the death on the Cross. The Christian story has no real beginning, because Christ was “Begotten of the Father before all Worlds”. It certainly has no end, as we recognize by our constant ending of prayers with some phrase such as “world without end”. But the Christian story has high points and the very chiefest of these, the keystone of the entire structure, is the Resurrection.
On Easter Day each year we do not celebrate something called “Easter”. No, “Easter” is only a modern word coming from the name of an ancient Saxon pagan goddess Eostre, whose rites were celebrated yearly at the vernal equinox. The name has survived but the significance is incomparably greater. What we celebrate on that day is an unbelievable, inexplicable triumph of life over death. Jesus, crucified on Friday and buried in the tomb the same day, rose again to life and showed Himself to the Apostles and others of His followers.
The story is told (with variations) in the final chapters of the Gospels of Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, and is recurrently proclaimed as a fact at many places in the Epistles of Sts. Paul, Peter and John. Was it a true and actual event? Christians have always believed that it was. The story is very specific. Witnesses came forward. The authorities, frightened and confused, bribed the soldier guard to tell a false story about it.
Exactly what happened there in the Garden on that morning within the sealed tomb is, of course, wrapped in mystery, for no one was present. The witnesses saw only the result in the form of the strangely spiritual yet flesh-and-blood body of the living, walking, eating and talking Master. We have only the written testimony of these witnesses to go by. That testimony was and is powerful enough in itself. We have only to remember what the event did in our own lives. The Apostles had been rather shallow and ignorant men. They had often demonstrated an inability to grasp the spiritual aims of our Lord’s mission. They had abandoned Him when He died on Calvary. They were frightened, discouraged and lost when He was taken from them to die. Yet, when they accepted the evidence of the Resurrection, they were transformed. They became spiritual giants, absolutely tireless evangelists, and courageous men willing to face and accept death, because they knew and believed. It was the Resurrection which transformed them.
It is intensely interesting to know that modern researchers are beginning to produce some corroborating evidence. The most intensive, detailed, careful and scientific study of that fascinating material call the Shroud of Turin, the cloth believed traditionally to have been the winding-sheet of Christ in the tomb, begins to yield startling and powerful evidence of what happened on that Easter morning. We can speculate and theorize. It is possible that the Body in that cloth was suddenly galvanized or irradiated (even in this atomic age, we have no wholly satisfactory way of expressing this theory) by a mighty inner and divine force such as had previously operated on the Mount of Transfiguration. Life returned, though in an altered material / spiritual state, the strange new but real body passed through or cast off the shroud and Christ stood resurrected, raised from death to life.
We will probably never penetrate to the heart of this mystery of mysteries. But because it happened, we believe, and are Christians. It is the supreme fact of our faith, giving final meaning to all else. Christ’s death on the Cross was in its way supremely important, also. Yet, is it not true that without the Resurrection the Cross would be nearly meaningless? Had the Cross ended the Lord’s life by eternal death, of what use or meaning would have been His “death for our sins”, His sacrifice of Himself for us? Thanks be to God, the story did not end at Golgotha, but went on to everlasting life promised us by the Risen Lord. So it is that this event, this Resurrection, has been called “the most illuminating event of history”.
For all Christians, then, there is no joy equal to the joy of the Easter celebration of the Resurrection. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
The Real Presence:
Consideration of that mystery known as “the Real Presence” touches the very heart of our Christian worship and faith. It has reference to the belief that Christ-God – is truly present on the altar in some special way in His Body and Blood after the consecration by the priest of the bread and wine.
In most Protestant Churches, Holy Communion is a memorial service only. The Anglican Church, however, regards it as a sacred or sacramental re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ once offered on Calvary. It is also a special offering of “ourselves, our souls and bodies”. When the priest pronounces the very words of institution which Christ used at the Last Supper, followed by the invocation to God to bless the elements “with thy Word [the Son] and Holy Spirit”, the bread and wine become in a mystical way which Anglicanism has never attempted to define closely the very Body and Blood of Christ – although of course remaining in all physical aspects simply bread and wine.
Christ is always present in spirit in the hearts and souls of men. By virtue of His Resurrection and Ascension, He is present in our world and in our lives. But Anglicans believe with the rest of the Holy Catholic Church that He is present in a special way on the altar in the Blessed Sacrament. Without attempting to define this Presence strictly, the Anglican Church has always affirmed it and its reality.
The Real Presence demands of all worshiper a special reverence, a special silence, some special mark of recognition. Some worshipers mark it by genuflecting, or else bowing, toward the altar when going forward to receive. Some cross themselves before or after receiving. Some bow with special reverence during the words of institution in the Prayer of Consecration. Some mark it in other outward ways. All Anglican worshippers should recognize in their hearts that God is specially and really present on the altar during the Holy Communion, as well as on those altars where the consecrated sacramental elements are reserved. All Anglican worshippers should make an effort to mark this fact in some way.
If Christ came and stood in some recognizable physical form at the altar we would certainly behave with utmost reverence; we would certainly not behave in any idle, carefree, everyday manner. Nor should we do so in the Presence of Christ’s Body and Blood. However mystical, intangible and inexplicable that Presence is, the Church and our faith teach us that it is a Real Presence.
Faith and Good Works
Controversy has raged at many periods in Christianity about how one is “saved”, that is, accepted by God, sure of eternal life on the day of reckoning. Some have said that faith alone can save. Others have put more stress on good works. Fortunately, this controversy is not so keen today, perhaps in part because of a growing consensus about the relation of good works to faith.
It would seem quite clear that the starting point is faith, faith in God, belief in His Son. Among Christ’s last words were these: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved…” (Mark 16:16). Throughout His ministry on earth, He repeated the same thought dozens of times with variations. Clearly, if Christ’s words mean anything at all, they mean that salvation begins with faith.
Saint Paul and other Apostles understood this and reinforced the theme again and again in their Epistles. Saint Paul spoke of “justification by faith” or “sanctification by faith” at least five times, meaning that by faith we are accounted righteous by God. We recall that when the rich young man asked how he could gain eternal life, the Lord said to him, in effect, that he should cast away all earthly idols and believe and follow Him.
Now, faith in Christ is not a pro formathing. It is not signing a pledge on the dotted line and filing it away as evidence. It is not membership in a Christian Church which one attends every Sunday. It is not even an intellectual conviction. It is rather a unified commitment of mind, heart and will to God, a commitment which permeates and changes our lives, our attitudes and our actions. God accepts that kind of commitment and accounts us righteous for it. And that accounting, and the grace which God thereby bestows on us, is the beginning of salvation.
When then do good works come in? Saint James has given us the shortest and most concise answer: “Even so, faith, if it hath not good works, is dead…” Faith has no reality, is meaningless, unless it so permeates our lives that it results in good works, that is, deeds and actions arising out of righteous motives – out of faith in the love of God and of His Son, Jesus Christ. The moral here is the old and simple one that actions speak louder than words. No matter how much we may profess our faith and say the Creeds, it is a dead letter unless it works through us in a regenerative way and shines forth in our lives.
Theologians may develop this theme at endless and confusing length. But it is really not so tangled and difficult. “Lord, I believe” comes first. If we really believe and demonstrate it by the fruits of faith (good works), God accepts this faith, imperfect as it may be, and accounts it to us for righteousness, sending us the gift of grace to strengthen our faith, to increase our good works, and finally to “save” us from sin and death and gain for us eternal life.
The last thing Jesus Christ commanded His disciples to do was go and teach all nations (Matthew 28:19) and go into all the world and preach the Gospel (Mark 16:15) and to be witnesses to His message “unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). This, in a word, is evangelism – the carrying of the Good Tidings of Christ to others.
A fervent irresistible desire to follow this command marked the Christians of the early Church, whether they were Apostles, presbyters, deacons or humble laity. They carried the message; they preached the Good News everywhere in the face of all obstacles and persecutions. The result was the spread and triumph of Christianity in the ancient Roman world, and even beyond.
As centuries passed, the fire and zeal to evangelize, to tell others of the message of Christian salvation, slowly died down, although no age has been without dedicated evangelists. In the Church of England, religious zeal and the impulse to spread the Gospel slowly diminished in the seventeenth century and by the early part of the eighteenth century the Church of England was simply no longer an effective spiritual force. It was no better in the American colonies. The will to respond to Christ’s mandate was almost extinct. Until 1729 –
John and Charles Wesley and a group of Oxford students felt the need for a deeper and more active spiritual life. Out of the devotional life they fashioned for themselves arose the revitalizing force of the Evangelical Movement. The Wesleys were Anglicans, but due in part to the slowness of Anglicanism to respond to this new life-giving force, many of their followers in the years to come established the Methodist Church. Nevertheless, in time, the Evangelical Movement also took hold in the Anglican Church, both in England and in the United States. The Gospel took on new life, zealous preaching revived, and missionary wok spread over the world.
The term “Evangelical” has often come to have confusing and complex meanings in terms of faith and party churchmanship. There is no room to go into all these nuances here. It is sufficient simply to recall that basically an evangelical churchman is one possessed of an inner compulsion and desire to tell others the Good News which Christ brought to earth. In the eighteenth century, this compulsion was strongest in “Low Church” Anglicans.. In the nineteenth century, it infected “High Church” Anglicans, thanks to the Oxford Movement or Catholic Revival, started by Pusey, Keble, Newman and others in England, and which were rapidly spread to the United States and throughout Anglicanism.
Evangelism and the evangelical spirit are not confined to any group or party in Anglicanism. They are an infection which has touched Anglicans of all stripes.
Today, however, a new lassitude with regard to evangelism threatens the energy and effectiveness of Anglicanism, certainly including those new parts known as “Continuing Anglicanism” in the United States. When there is a boring in of secular humanism, or when there is an unhealthy preoccupation with orthodoxy, “purity” of belief, and rigidity of form, the will, desire and enthusiasm for evangelism wither. And so do the Church and Christian religion.
A keen observer and devoted priest in the Continuing Anglican movement – “the Church of Exodus” he calls it – has diagnosed it thus:
I believe that Anglicanism…in all its parts is suffering from a very serious disease that has afflicted us for so long that we have learned to live with it without feeling sick. I believe that, as Anglicans, we are more concerned about the Church than about God as such. We habitually substitute ecclesiology for theology; we preach and teach…to a world that knows nothing about such things…but which does hunger for the Bread of Life and thirst for the Living God.
Too many Anglicans today think they are evangelizing when they bring someone to Church. But true evangelism is bringing someone to Christ (the Church will follow). Anglicanism at it finest has never forgotten the command: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations.” If Anglicans, and other Christians, really believe and are faithful, they will obey that command, gladly and ardently.
Death, Funeral, Burials – these are subjects which many people shy away from. However, these matters inevitably affect every single human being and cannot be avoided. Nor should they. While grief and sorrow are naturally connected with every death, these emotions must be put in a Christian perspective.
The Christian believe that Christ overcame death by His Resurrection. The Christian believes that this victory over death purchased for us our own future resurrection and our eternal life with God the Father. We say this in the Creed: “I look for the resurrection of the dead: and the life of the world to come”. We also say it with poetic beauty in the Te Deum: “When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death, thou didst open the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers”.
So, the Christian does not fear death. He rejoices in the promise of what lies beyond, even though he suffers from the temporary parting of a beloved relative or friend. This is the cornerstone on which the forms and traditions of Anglican funerals and burials rest. Though sorrowing for ourselves, we have no fear for the departed. Our customs at death are designed to support this belief in the joy to come, however muted by the grief of the moment.
Thus, the Christian is well aware that the familiar and loved physical body is only the earthly dwelling place of the soul. When death occurs, the real person, the soul or spirit, has departed from the body. The body is to be treated reverently and decently disposed of, but it is no longer the home of the soul; it is no longer the departed person. Therefore the Church does not allow open coffins at the service and does not encourage “viewings” and “wakes”. The corruptible body returns to dust and will be replaced by a new resurrection body at the Second Coming. The Church has come to recognize this and accepts cremation as entirely proper when desired.
Except in very unusual circumstances, the service for a believing, practicing Christian should take place in the church, not in a residence or funeral home. Death is but the last event in a person’s life in the Church on earth and the funeral should find the remains of the departed in his church, in the midst of his fellow Christian churchmen.
Since the earliest centuries, the Church has taught the Holy Communion to be fit and proper, indeed perhaps the best accompaniment to the service for the deceased. In this way, the family and fellow-Christians can unite themselves in the most intimate and sacred manner with the spirit of the deceased at Christ’s altar and in Christ’s Sacrament. Such a Requiem service is a solemn affirmation of the indissoluble ties that bind us all together in Christ and of our belief in everlasting life with God.
To emphasize the equality of all in death and before God, the Church frowns on masses of flowers at funerals. Flowers may be consoling to the mourners, but they do not help the deceased and they may only turn into a competition for show. Likewise, the coffin is covered by a cloth, a “pall”, again to stress the equality of all in the sight of God, and also to cover and discourage ostentatious display in the matter of coffins. Ostentation, display and evidence of extravagance or wealth are out of place at this moment of final leveling before God.
The Burial Office, as found in the Book of Common Prayer, is very similar to Morning and Evening Prayer. It has the same mixture of the prayer and readings from Scripture, including the Psalms, and the same elements of corporate participation as the Daily Offices. There is no provision, in the Burial Office, for a sermon or eulogy, although very occasionally there may be such in unusual circumstances.
Traditionally, the color of all Church vestments and hangings at a funeral has been black or violet (purple). An exception is the service of a child, when white is used. Music is entirely proper when desired and available, for it is a customary form of expressing our praise, joy and sorrow and increasing the beauty of our worship, as well as our corporate participation in it.
In the final analysis, the entire context of Christian death and burial is determined by our acceptance of Jesus’ words to Martha of Bethany: “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die”.
This page is part of a series of Anglican teaching leaflets originally written by Perry Lankhuff and offered by Christ Church Anglican.