“Meditation” for Fauré’s Requiem
April 14, 2019
Faith Presbyterian Church – Evening Service
When I told someone I know outside of our congregation about our program tonight … they were puzzled … and I suspect a little put off.
Their response was something like “Oookay … why would you do that?”
Because tonight, our program, is essentially a musical work that is focused on death and dying, and what follows that.
Why would a group of people, on a Sunday evening like tonight, gather together to meditate on death and dying?
The question brings out how counter-cultural our focus tonight is.
But it wasn’t always so counter-cultural.
The Christian church for much of its history stressed the importance of living our lives now in light of the fact that we will die. Whether in the liturgy and music of the church, as we will hear tonight, in church architecture, or in the visual art of the church, at its best the Church was persistent in reminding itself of the reality of death. A work or genre of art aimed at doing this would be referred to as a memento mori – Latin for “Remember (that) you will die.”
My favorite example of a memento mori that I have heard of is in Rome and is called the Capuchin Crypt. It is a small space made up of several tiny chapels beneath a church. And each room, each chapel, is intricately decorated with the carefully arranged bones of 3700 Franciscan friars who had been part of the Capuchin order before their deaths.
As you approach the crypt, one of the first things you encounter are three skeletons, standing and facing you. Under them is a placard that declares in five different languages:
“What you are now, we used to be;
What we are now, you will be.”
In her book titled These Beautiful Bones, Emily Stimpson writes of how this crypt was once one of the most popular tourist attractions in Rome. “Throughout the nineteenth century,” she writes, “pilgrims and dignitaries alike, including the American writers Mark Twain and Nathanial Hawthorne, flocked to the […] crypt […] eager to look upon the bones of the Capuchin monks buried there. But not anymore. Today […] most pilgrims to the Eternal City come and go without hearing of the crypt’s existence.”
In seasons of the past, the Church and the wider culture have known the value of reminding themselves of the reality of death and the need to live in light of it. But not as much anymore.
Today we live in an age, to borrow Ernest Becker’s well-known phrase, that is shaped by the denial of death.
And as we prepare to hear Fauré’s Requiem, I think we would do well to focus our minds on the subject at hand by briefly considering how we personally tend to deny the reality of death, and then considering the ways in which we should focus on it instead.
Psychologists, anthropologists, cultural commentators, and others have pointed out the range of ways that our culture often attempts to deny death.
One of the most obvious ones is our tendency to simply hide it from view. We work hard to keep death out of our literal and mental line of sight.
Not only do we avoid places like the Capuchin Crypt, but on a more significant level, the sick, the elderly, the dying, and the dead, are kept largely out of sight in our culture. We are willing to view them in certain ways through video screens, as a part of a movie or television show or some other form of entertainment, but in real life, we hide them away.
I have mentioned before that I spent many hours working in an assisted living home for people with dementia, while I was in seminary. I knew of course that our chief responsibility was to care for the residents there, to meet their physical, emotional, spiritual, and social needs, to serve them well – to take care of them as they suffered the course of their illness, and as, eventually, they faced death.
Our primary and stated role was to care for the residents. But I also soon came to see that the other function that institutions like ours served in many cases was to shield the eyes of the rest of the world from such sickness and death, so that they did not have to think about it. Family and friends could spend time with their loved ones – and many did faithfully, just as many here have loved their relatives well even while that relative needed full-time care in an institution like the one I worked in. But working in St. Louis I learned that there were also many other people who simply did not want to see such things.
We deny death by hiding it from our line of sight. The futility of this should be obvious. Death will come for each of us one day. And when it does, we will no longer be able to avert our eyes.
Of course, there are other ways to deny death. If shielding our eyes or attention is one, then another approach looks to overcome death with some form of heroism.
In the face of our inevitable death, we focus our energy on creating something that is great, something that will outlive us. It could be any number of things, whether a great work of art, a political achievement, a work of social charity, a mark that we leave on an institution we believe in, a changed life of someone younger than we are, a family that continues to bear our name … it can be any number of things.
Now … there is nothing necessarily wrong in seeking to do those sorts of things … but the impotence of such works to overcome death should be obvious.
Good though they may be, they will not negate the reality of death. If death is the end of our existence, as a modern materialist would believe, then what would it matter to us if we are remembered or left our mark on the world once we no longer exist?
And if the souls of men and women live on after death … then what good will the marks we leave behind in this world do for us in the world we enter upon death?
Recently, many in our culture have denied death by embracing it on their own terms. NPR recently ran a story on attempts to broaden the availability of physician-assisted suicide in Oregon. There is a lot going on in an individual that seeks and a culture that legalizes physician-assisted suicide. But one thing going on, I think, at least in some cases, is a desire actually to deny death in a sense … or at least deny the power of death.
Death comes, and it has power over us. And that can be terrifying. For some, the response is a desire to choose the moment and method of death … which among other things might give us the illusion that we have power over death … when it really has power over us.
We could go on and on … but in a range of ways we have a tendency as a culture and as individuals to deny death.
What does it look like for you? How do you deny the reality of death? How do you shield your eyes? How do you act as if your achievements can give you immortality? How do you strive for the illusion of control over death?
What do you do?
An do you see how it is in vain? Death comes to us all … and it is better to face the reality than to pretend it is any different.
The Bible is frank and direct about the reality of death, but in our context, it also challenges the dominant understanding of death.
The default thinking about death in our culture is increasingly one where at death our consciousness ends, and we cease to exist as people.
And if that is your expectation, then it’s somewhat understandable why you would want to avert your eyes from what is coming.
But the Bible never puts that definition of death forward. The Bible’s understanding includes both physical death and spiritual death, and it tells us that it is the second that brought the first into the world.
Physical death is the severing of soul from body. It is what happens when a person’s biological life comes to an end. The body stops, and the soul is separated from it.
Spiritual death is a much more significant separation. It is the relational separation of the person from God their Maker.
The Bible is clear, on several things. First, that it was spiritual death that introduced physical death into our world, when our first parents rebelled against God. And second, that one can be physically alive while spiritually dead. In fact, the Bible tells us, vast multitudes live their lives in just that condition – their body and soul remain united, but they remain separated from God.
And the fullness of death comes when physical and spiritual death combine. When a person separated relationally from God experiences physical death and their body and soul are severed. God’s people have recognized the result of such a combination is eternal death – that separated from God, the source of all good, for eternity, they would dwell in darkness, despair, and pain forever. That is the reality of hell that God’s people and God’s word confess.
And God’s people have always recognized, as the Scriptures have told them to, that to escape such eternal death they needed to call on another to save them.
It’s exactly what we see in the first stanza of the Offertorium tonight. Look at the translation:
“O Lord Jesus Christ, King of Glory, free the souls of the dying from the punishment of hell and the deep pit. O Lord Jesus Christ, King of Glory, deliver the dying souls from the mouth of the lion, so they are not swallowed by hell and do not fall into darkness.”
Such words recognize the need, as we face death, for someone stronger than us, someone stronger than death, to deliver us safely from eternal spiritual death, at the moment that we face physical death.
My family has started watching the BBC special “Blue Planet II” and one of the episodes I especially enjoyed was the second episode, titled “The Deep” where the BBC team travels to the ocean floor and records what is found down there.
In the places they travel down deep, the water is cold, the pressure is incredible, the environment is pitch black.
It is not an environment humans were designed for. A human being at that level would be frozen, crushed, suffocated, and in the dark. It is a cold and terrible place for humans to be.
But the team went. And they went because they were able to go in a submersible called the Nadir, which could supply them with oxygen, keep them warm, provide light, and stay strong under the pressure of depths of up to 3,280 feet – a kilometer under the surface of the ocean.
The producers of Blue Planet II could go into this world that humans were never designed for, and they could descend into it and then ascend once more unharmed, because they were carried by something stronger than they were – something stronger than even the forces of the deep.
We get in that a picture of what Christ our Lord does for all who trust in him when they enter into death.
There is a sort of natural link between physical death and spiritual death … so that for fallen humanity, one is linked to the other. Separation of body and soul naturally throws the sinful soul into the distant place from God it so often tried to get to in this life. And that place is cold, and dark, and suffocating, and crushing. It is a place in which humans were not designed to dwell.
But the reason why Christians should be able to gather together on a Sunday night and remember together the truth that they will die, the reason they should be able to sing and speak about death without fear, the reason they can build the theme of death into their art and architecture, is not because Christians can make themselves stronger than death … but because they have received a promise from one who is stronger than death that he will carry them through.
They know that Christ in his death and resurrection defeated death – he proved himself stronger than it, and he proved his strength over it for all his people to see, so that if they entrusted themselves to him, they no longer needed to have any fear of death – so much so that the Apostle Paul could quote the Prophet Isaiah and declare: “O Death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”
As the Nadir submersible carried BBC producers through the cold, dark, hostile terrain of the ocean floor safely, so Christ has promised to carry his people, all who cling to him, through the cold, dark, hostile terrain of death in safety.
But unlike the BBC producers in the Nadir, having carried us through that hostile land, he will not return us to exactly where we came from.
Immediately upon death, he will draw us to himself, so that we see him face to face and experience joy with him.
And then, at the last day, at the resurrection, he will return us to the earth, but not to an identical earth … to an earth instead that has been transformed by his grace – to a new heaven and a new earth – to a world of paradise.
A world, as the In Paradisum will tell us in just a few minutes, where the angels will lead us into paradise, where the people of God who have gone before us will lead us to the holy city of Jerusalem, where the chorus of angels will sing, where, like the pauper Lazarus, our suffering will be no more, and where we will have eternal rest.
We leave this life, we pass through the darkness of death, sheltered by Christ our Lord, in him, as his people. And he carries us so that we may emerge in a new heavens and new earth where joy overflows.
It is that truth that puts the fear of death in perspective. It is that truth that should put our whole lives into perspective.
And so tonight, we hear the Requiem, and we reflect together on death, and what follows after.
As we do, listen to the music, look at the art, and follow with the translation of the words. Let the beauty of the music and art be a way to bring the words and truths deeper to your heart and mind.
Let the half-hour ahead be a time where you stop your efforts to deny the reality of death, and where you look at it and consider your own death.
Let it be a time to reflect on the physical death we all will face, and the eternal spiritual death we all deserve.
Let it be a time to hear preached again in the music the fact that Christ is stronger than death. Let it be a time when you are urged afresh to place or renew your trust in him to carry you through death safely.
And let it be a time to reflect on paradise, on the new Jerusalem, on the New Heaven and New Earth where he has promised to bring those who have trusted in him, to dwell with him for eternity.
Let it be a time for us to acknowledge our death, and pray together “Give us eternal rest, O Lord.”