Why You Bury Me in the Cold, Cold Ground?

Actually, the title has little to do with this essay, but the Tasmanian Devil was always one of my favorite Bugs Bunny characters.

I have frequently heard in the last week or so the sentiment that this world is not my home. It is a reference to the old gospel song, “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through …” I always thought it was a sort of Baptist thing, but I’ve been surprised by the number of Orthodox who hold the same sentiment. Wakes and internments are not the time to question well-meaning sentiments, so I mostly nodded noncommittally. It’s an idea that I have come to dislike, but I think this is a better forum for my thoughts than the back of funeral home, where the incense was still heavy in the air.

This theme is present in a couple of places in the New Testament, but always with a specific context. 1 Peter speaks of the readers as “sojourners” in this world. The letter to the Hebrews speaks of being citizens of a better country, a heavenly country. Both allusions have two things in common. First, the primary audience is Jewish Christians and second, it is a clear allusion to Israel’s forty years in the desert as they wandered before entering the Promised Land. What we see with these references is a metaphor based on a specific Old Testament event that speaks primarily to Jewish Christians.

In the Greek context (in which Paul, Luke and Mark, and to a certain extent, John, wrote) this is the “not yet” character of salvation. It is a common theme in the New Testament. Jesus tells the disciples that the Comforter will be given and he will reveal all things. Paul says we see in a mirror dimly but some day we will see God face to face.

One of my favorite descriptions of the living experience of this “not yet” theme comes from the life of Elder Sophrony (I think, I couldn’t quickly lay my hands on the specific story). Sophrony, as a young man, and then again repeatedly throughout his life, had experienced the Uncreated Light. For those of you unfamiliar with this terminology which is drawn from the writings of Gregory Palamas, it refers to the unmediated experience of the presence of God which some Christians have been blessed to receive. Sophrony was often found sitting alone crying. His broken heart was a result of the juxtaposition of the heavenly reality of the Uncreated Light with pale limitations of the created order as we experience it. He longed for the day when he would permanently perceive God’s presence in its fullness (face to face, as it were) because it was so far superior to life as we know it now.

But this “not yet” character of our life here-and-now is far different than the sentiment that “this world is not my home,” or the belief that the dead in Christ have finally gone home (or even worse, shed the mortal coil). It is a profound misunderstanding of where our home really is.

Our home is with God. That home is spoken about most sublimely in the language of marriage. We are the Bride of Christ and the wedding, the wedding feast, and establishment of our home with our Bridegroom, Jesus Christ is one of the goals of the consummation of all things. (The other goals of the consummation of all things include the final overthrow of sin and death and the renewal of the heavens and the earth.)

So it is true that our ultimate home will be with God. But where is God? Revelation 21:3 makes that quite clear.  “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them.’”

The idea that “this world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through” gets the direction completely wrong. Ultimately, it is not we that go up to God, it is God who comes down to us.  The old gospel song misses the essence of the urgency of divine grace. It is God who longs to come to us in fullness. If we, in turn, long for that fullness, all the better, but grace is not contingent on my longing to get to God, it is contingent on God’s longing to come to us in fullness.

It must be said that this is not a one-way street. The Prodigal Son was indeed returning from a foreign land, making his way back home. But it was the Father who was watching from the house, and who, upon seeing his son, ran down the road in a most undignified manner to greet him, accepted him fully as a son, even though he was unworthy, and who simply didn’t let his son get a word in edgewise, as he heaped his love and mercy upon him.

The Russians, when they speak of their own deaths, often speak in terms of dying a good death.  I would argue that this is a far better description of a proper Christian death than death as “going away to my new and proper home.”

We don’t go away at all, in death we return to God’s good creation:  “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” as the Anglican Service Book describes it so well. At death our remains are committed to the ground at the committal service precisely because God came down to us and made his home with us, not the other way around. “The home of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them.”

Death is an inconvenience, an intrusion, an interruption of the life of the living. I was reminded of this at every funeral service at which I officiated over twenty plus years of ministry. I was reminded of this when my own father died. The last thing my father wanted to do was inconvenience his family. Because of this, when he made plans for his own death, he insisted that he be cremated so the family could gather at their convenience rather than having to drop everything and come together at the time of death.

It was indeed inconvenient. At the time of death all options were put on the table. The convenient thing would have been to scatter the ashes to the wind. Actually it wasn’t so much the convenience, it was the obscene charges and fees funeral directors love to heap on grieving families. (In my less-than Christian moments, I might call down a pox on that particular species of humanity!) I’m not sure how the rest of the family felt about scattering the ashes. Before anyone had a chance to discuss it, I insisted on committing his remains to God’s good earth rather than scattering them to the four winds. God is confident enough in his prodigal people and his creation (created good, although terribly messed up by sin, destruction, and all the other grievous evils of this world system) that he chose to come down and make his dwelling with us rather than making us abandon this place in order to go up to some utopian perfect place we blithely call “heaven.”

Because God came down to dwell on earth with us, we in turn commend our loved ones to the God-who-is-here and commit them to this place where God is: “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God, our brother Vincent, and commit his body to be returned to the ground. ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, says the Spirit. They rest from their labors and their works follow them. [Rev. 14:13]’”

And as the Orthodox are wont to sing lustily at times such as these, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” [from the Paschal Troparion.]