Blessed are the Dead Who Die in the Lord

A eulogy for Margaret Poole Littlejohn, 1928-2013

Almost a year ago, my wife and I had the privilege of attending a performance of Johannes Brahms’s A German Requiem, a breathtaking piece of choral music based on texts Brahms selected from Luther’s German Bible.  While waiting for the performance to begin, we were disappointed and puzzled to read in the program, “Brahms said that it could just as easily have been called a ‘Human Requiem’.  It deals primarily with the human suffering caused by death and the grief of those left behind, and although some of the texts deal with the hope of resurrection, there are no overt references to Christian dogma.”  How, we wondered, could the resurrection not count as Christian dogma?  Our puzzlement turned to outrage as the music began and offered not a meditation on the suffering caused by death, but a triumphant declaration of Christian joy in the face of the mortality that Christ has conquered.  Beginning with Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted, the music took us to such passages as:

The redeemed of the Lord will come again, and come to Zion with a song, everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall take joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall depart;

The righteous souls are in the hand of God, and there no torment shall touch them;   

Then shall be fulfilled the word that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory.  O Death, where is thy sting?  O grave, where is thy victory? 

before concluding in tones of peace and bliss, as the chorus sings:

Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord from henceforth.  Yes, saith the Spirit, that they rest from their labours, and their works shall follow them.  

When I heard the news of Grandmama’s passing last Thursday night, my heart was filled with peace and even joy as my thoughts travelled immediately back to that closing line: “Blessed are they that die in the Lord from henceforth.”  As I’ve reflected back on that piece of music, and asked, “How could the program-writer get it so wrong?” I’ve realized how much today we are prone to take the hope of resurrection for granted.  For the writer of that program, the old Catholic requiem, with its fearful warnings of “the great day of wrath”—that sounded like Christian dogma.  Judgment, fear, hell.  Isn’t that what Christianity is all about?  That’s how many people today think of Christian teaching.  Hope for life after death, though, faith in some kind of vague “resurrection,” that we just take for granted—that’s natural, right?  But this just shows how much Christianity has succeeded in flipping the world upside down.  2,000 years ago, if there was anything everyone could take for granted, it was the reality of judgment after death, the need to placate angry gods.  Even the more righteous among us still had any number of sins to atone for.  All the religions seemed to agree about that.  And if you were a skeptic, it just meant that you faced death with a different kind of fear, the fear of the unknown—”of that undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns.”  The Christian hope of the resurrection was a revolution, and we should not let long familiarity with it breed contempt.  

Confronted with the sadness of separation from a loved one, we try to brighten the gloom of a funeral by making into “a celebration of a life well-lived.”  And certainly, there is so much to celebrate in Grandmama’s life, from the hundreds or thousands of lives she touched through her friendship and philanthropy to the endless trays of cookies or endless renditions of Yertle the Turtle she bestowed on us fortunate grandchildren.  My sister Hope has already told you some of the things that made Grandmama’s life so special.  But thanks to Christ, we are not left merely to comfort ourselves in the face of the darkness of death with the consolation that “she lived well, she died well.”  Rather, we can truly rejoice in the face of her death with the thought that “she will live well.” 

This funeral is not merely the celebration of a life well-lived, but of a life to be lived, a life in the hand of God, where no torment shall touch her.  For I have never had to doubt that when Grandmama died, she would die in the Lord, even as she lived in the Lord for all eighty-four years of her life.  Her faith was a quiet one, the kind of faith that expresses itself in devoted service to those immediately around her, in faithful attendance at worship week in and week out, whatever her health, in dedicated ministry to her church and community.  It was never loud or ostentatious, but a slow, steadily-burning flame that sustained her through her whole life, and impressed itself upon her children and grandchildren.  Some of my fondest memories of Grandmama are sitting by her side on the piano bench as she played and sung through her favorite hymns, or learning to say my bedtime prayers with her on my many overnight stays.  One prayer in particular stuck with me, mainly because it seemed so superfluously morbid for a five-year-old to pray: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep; and if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”  Morbid, maybe, but perhaps not superfluously so.  Even at age five, we need to be reminded of our mortality.  As another text in Brahms’s Requiem puts it, “Lord, teach me that I must have an end, and my life has a purpose, and I must go hence.  Behold, my days are as a handbreadth before me.”  God gave to Grandmama a full count of days, just over 31,000 in fact, in which to bear his image and share his love in the world.  But at last the day came when she laid down to sleep, and did die before she waked.  And we can give thanks, with everlasting joy, that even as he kept her soul in life, so the Lord has taken her soul now to rest in peace and rise in glory.

Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord from henceforth.  Yes, saith the Spirit, that they rest from their labours, and their works shall follow them.

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