Text of the Address given at the funeral of Joyce Edwards (1914-2014) at the Church of Christ the Saviour, Winton, Bournemouth, 2 January 2015
The Sacred Scriptures open with a magnificent and poetic description of the Creation of the Cosmos, of which the highlight is the creation of man, whom God formed from the dust of the ground, breathing into his nostrils the breath of life, so that he became a living soul.
Yet God, Who alone is immortal, as the creator and maker of man, decreed as the punishment for man’s disobedience, that it would be his lot to return to the ground from which he came, and from which he had been sustained during his life on earth, “For out of it wast thou taken, for dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.”
The Russian Contakion of the Departed – one of the hymns of the Orthodox Church – witnesses to this as our common end, saying “All we go down to the dust, and weeping oe’r the grave, we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia !” It is a solemn and sobering thought when we come to part with those we have loved and cherished in life and the weeping reflects our sense of loss and grief.
Yet notice what is the song given to us to sing: “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia !”
These words, taken directly from the Hebrew by the earliest Christians, mean “Praise God” – indeed it is a superlative expression of thanksgiving, joy and triumph. In the Roman Rite it is linked particularly to Easter or Holy Pascha but not sung during Lent, as opposed to the Orthodox liturgical tradition where it is sung throughout the entire year.
To the world – a term the Bible often uses to describe those who do not share the Christian faith – this thankfulness seems at best misplaced, or more generally altogether appears foolishness. But, who is the fool ? The Psalmist tells us, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ (Psalm LIII: 1) whilst the Apostle Paul tells us that “The wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (1 Corinthians III: 19-20) and warns us that “The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians II: 14-15).
As Christians we do not worship a God whom we cannot know or who cares little for us, but rather we worship Him from whom “every good gift and every perfect gift” (James I: 17) is bestowed on us and “Who so loved the world (this time used to encompass all of God’s creation) that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John III: 16)
Through the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ we see that death has been vanquished and that life and immortality are the promise that awaits us. That breath of life, which makes us living souls, has not been quenched by death. St. Paul reveals the thread which links us with the creation of man, the resurrection of Christ and our own future condition, “For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Corinthians XV: 21-22).
Our father among the saints, St. John Chrysostom has left us a sermon on the Resurrection, which in the Byzantine tradition is read at the Paschal Vigil service. It eloquently expresses the Christian belief in resurrection:
“Let none fear death;
for death of the Saviour has set us free.
He has destroyed death by undergoing death.
He has despoiled hell by descending into hell.
He vexed it even as it tasted of His flesh.
Isaiah foretold this when he cried:
Hell was filled with bitterness when it met Thee face to face below;
filled with bitterness, for it was brought to nothing;
filled with bitterness, for it was mocked;
filled with bitterness, for it was overthrown;
filled with bitterness, for it was put in chains.
Hell received a body, and encountered God. It received earth, and confronted heaven.
O death, where is your sting?
O hell, where is your victory?
Christ is risen! And you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is risen! And the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is risen! And the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen! And life is liberated!
Christ is risen! And the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
When the very first corn and other crops begin to shoot they are the promise that more is to follow. These are the biblical first-fruits, which were offered by the priest in thankfulness and faith in the rich harvest which would soon follow. St. Paul tells us that “Now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.” (1 Corinthians XV: 20). If Christ is the firstfruits then the righteous, those who have fallen asleep as well as those who remain at the coming of the Lord, are the promised harvest.
Alleluia – Thanksgiving, joy and triumph. Thanksgiving for the assurance that Joyce has passed from death to life eternal; that she has a merciful and loving Saviour Who will grant her forgiveness of her sins; joy because she has set her hope in God, the author and maker of her being, so that she now rests in Paradise, where the Choirs of the Saints and the Glorious Assembly of the Just shine like the stars of heaven; and where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting; and triumph that she will be numbered with those who rest in the paradise of joy awaiting that great Day of Resurrection when they will dwell in newness of life.
So indeed, let us we make our song, “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia !”