Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Rites & Wrongs of Passage” first appeared in the November 2006 issue of Touchstone.
Rites & Wrongs of Passage
An Episcopal Priest on Casual Ministers & Reverent Marines
The funeral was in the chapel of a navy base, conducted by a retired Episcopal priest of, I believe, Southern middle-of-the-road churchmanship. While the service was not without reverence and the priest was genuinely considerate of the sadness of the loss, he seemed to be trying to keep the service casual.
For the homily, he came out from behind the altar and leaned on the end of it rather than going to the pulpit. When he prepared the vessels on the altar for Communion, there was no formality to his actions: He might just as well have been getting dishes out of the kitchen cupboard for lunch.
There were awkward pauses at several points while he flipped through his book, apparently looking for his place. He also seemed rushed. Since the service was lengthened by the inclusion of Holy Communion, one began to wonder whether he was afraid it would run too long, making us late for the committal at the cemetery.
The deceased was a retired Marine Corps Reserve officer, and, at the request of his widow, the Marine Corps provided pall bearers, as well as a detail for the rifle salute and taps at the interment. This took place in a nearby Veterans Administration cemetery. There the priest first conducted the committal service.
Then the marines took over. Everything they did was deliberate, well practiced, careful, unhurried. It was pure ritual. It was clear that they took seriously what they were doing. Every movement had been considered, and, I assume, drilled ahead of time. It was to be done correctly in every detail, with dignity and honor, without regard to time: Seemingly this was all that mattered to them.
The precision and dignity was a matter of honor. At the end, the flag was presented to the widow by the commander of the marines on the base. He could easily have sent a junior officer to deal with a reserve officer’s burial, but chose not to. It was all profoundly moving, as a number of mourners remarked after the services.
The care and dignity of the military rite put the Christian rites to shame. I don’t believe that the priest was intentionally irreverent or unprepared. But by comparison with the marines’ reverent ritual, the chapel service and the committal seemed slapdash.
The contrast says several things:
1. It is hard to be casual and solemn at the same time. The marines’ formality communicated the seriousness and solemnity of the occasion. The priest’s casual approach told us that it was a casual and commonplace occasion. No doubt this reflected our increasingly casual society.
Yet even there, “casual” has its limits. Consider that various public schools now require uniforms, because they found that the children would not take school seriously when dressed very casually. Likewise in church: if, for example, at the “Peace” people are encouraged to greet one another the way they would at the grocery store, the rite loses some of its solemnity. Joining others in the worship of Almighty God should be more solemn than joining them in buying milk and bananas.
2. It is hard to be solemn if you are in a hurry.
Haste says that something else is more important than what you are doing at present. The marines’ deliberate and unhurried ceremonies showed that ritual, done with care and attention, can communicate the solemnity of a solemn occasion, which the burial of the dead certainly is.
The trend in liturgical revision in the Episcopal and Roman Catholic Churches (and I suspect most Western liturgical churches) in the last forty years has been to shorten the services, to streamline things, so that people don’t get bored. Having absorbed this mentality, ministers have become apologetic for taking any time with the liturgy. The mentality says, “We know you have more important things to do, so we’ll get through the worship as quickly as possible.” It tells the people gathered that there is nothing that requires solemnity, for if worship does not, what does?
3. Ritual still has power, even in a culture that in many ways despises it. Ritual is commonly seen these days as impersonal, and therefore incompatible with properly affirming the individual. It has been largely removed from secular public occasions. A high-school graduation can now be a noisy party, rather than a solemn ritual to be followed by a party.
It was the marines’ service that brought comment afterwards, not the Christian liturgy, no doubt because the marines provided the now-foreign experience of solemn ritual. But the ritual also impressed because it evoked deep within the human heart that sense of solemnity in communicating the important things of death, honor, respect, and duty.
4. The Episcopal Church has, in general and with exceptions, for a generation abjured the kind of formal ritual the marines maintain. This stems, judging from the words of liturgists and hierarchs, from the desire, common in many churches of the late 1960s and 1970s, to be more culturally relevant. By contrast, the message from the marines is: We will do what marines do, whether the culture understands and affirms it or not. They are willing to be countercultural when the essential character of the Marine Corps demands it.
5. The church rites sought to focus on the individual worshipers and the deceased; the marines focused on the rite. The individual marines set aside their individuality in order to serve the common purpose of honoring the dead. This sacrifice of self for the common purpose itself lends power to ritual, since we all (the “old man” in us) resist self-sacrifice. If the marines were bored, or thinking about their girlfriends, or wondering what was for supper, that fact was well hidden by their participation in the ritual. The ritual protected them—and us—from their human defects.
6. The marines’ rite pointed to transcendent values: honor, service of country over self, sacrifice. While the texts of the church service pointed to redemption and the resurrection of the body, the streamlined texts and the haste with which they were (and too often are) performed suggested that we should be thinking about worldly things, the things we’ll shortly be about, and not about eternal things, like commending the soul of a Christian man to God.
The casual approach undermines the scriptural content, particularly the horror of death. And by undermining the horror of death, it undermines the promise of the Resurrection.
To the embarrassment of the church, the marines were in important ways more Christian than the churchmen. A solemn occasion like this funeral shows how much the church has become a creature of the age, and is failing in its duty to point men to the transcendent and to the greatest of all transcendent goods, the Triune God. Semper fidelis.
“Rites & Wrongs of Passage” first appeared in the November 2006 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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