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.


Death is Swallowed Up in Victory

Blessed are those that mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Those who sow in tears, shall reap joy
He who goes forth and weeps, bearing precious seed,
Shall come again with joy, bringing his sheaves with him.

For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of the grass.
The grass withers, and the flower falls away.

Therefore be patient, dear brothers, unto the coming of the Lord.
Behold, the husbandman waits for the precious fruits of the earth
And is patient for it, until he receives the morning rain and evening rain.

But the word of the Lord endures for eternity, 
The redeemed of the Lord will come again
And come to Zion with a song; eternal joy shall be upon their heads;
They shall take joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall depart.

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 handbreath before Thee,
and my life is as nothing before Thee.
Alas, as nothing are all men, but so surely are the living.

They are thus like a shadow, and go about vainly in disquiet;
They collect riches, and do not know who will receive them.
Now, Lord, how can I console myself?  My hope is in Thee.

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

How lovely are Thy dwelling places, O Lord of Hosts!
My soul demands and yearns for the courts of the Lord;
My body and soul rejoice in the living God.

Blessed are they that dwell in Thy house; they will praise You forever.

“You now have sorrow; but I shall see you again
And your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no one shall take from you.
Behold me: I have had for a little time toil and torment, 
And now have found great comfort.
I will console you, as one is consoled by his mother.”

For we have here no continuing city, but we seek one to come.  

Behold, I show you a mystery:
We shall not all sleep, but we all shall be changed
And suddenly, in the blink of an eye, at the sound of the last trumpet.
For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible,
and we shall be changed.
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?

Lord, Thou art worthy to receive all Praise, honour and power,
For Thou hast created all things, and through Thy will
They have been and are created.

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. 

So runs the text of Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem, which I was privileged enough to see performed for the first time this weekend—a masterpiece that must surely rank as one of the great musical testaments to Christendom. Although Brahms’s own Christian commitment is open to some doubt, this text, compiled by Brahms himself from the pages of Luther’s German Bible, surely represents one of the most powerful affirmations of Christian faith in God and hope in the resurrection in the face of death.  Indeed, I have little hesitation in saying that as a response to the fear of death, it is much more authentically Christian than the traditional Requiem Mass, with its morbid meditation on “that day of wrath, calamity, and misery, day of great and exceeding bitterness, when thou shalt come to judge the world by fire,” and fearful pleas for mercy.  

Imagine my indignation, then, when confronted with these incoherent declarations from the concert’s program notes, courtesy of one Femke Colborne: “Brahms chose and assembled a selection of texts from Luther’s translation of the Bible. . . . [However,] the German Requiem is less overtly religious than a traditional 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.”  Let’s leave aside for the moment the oddity of Requiem consisting entirely of texts from the Christian Scriptures and not being overtly Christian.  Let’s leave aside the question of how statements like “Lord, Thou art worthy to receive all Praise, honour and power, for Thou hast created all things, and through Thy will they have been and are created” contain no overt references to Christian dogma.  Indeed, let’s leave aside the point that not merely “some,” but fully half of the words of the Requiem’s text deal with the doctrine of the resurrection.

I’m particularly intrigued by the stunning claim implied by the last two clauses of that extract from the program notes—that the hope of the resurrection is not a Christian dogma.  It would be hard, in fact, to imagine a more Christian dogma than that of the resurrection of the dead.  Indeed, it was of course this doctrine, more than any other claim of the early Christians, that was a scandal and nonsense in the ancient world.  No Greek, no Roman, no barbarian or mystery religion, indulged in such an absurdly optimistic doctrine.  Perhaps it is a sign of just how thoroughly the Christian revolution has transformed the human consciousness that we now take for granted its most distinctive claims.  Indeed, perhaps Mr. (Mrs.?) Colborne could be forgiven his mistake, given the prevalence of a curiously vague and humanistic fascination with the idea of “resurrection” in Brahms’s German Romantic contemporaries, such as Mahler.  And to be sure, a vague and syncretistic hope in “resurrection” is a widespread theme in the post-Christian Western consciousness.

But I suspect that what Mr. Colborne really had in mind was that Brahms’s Requiem was less fixated with the idea of wrath, judgment, and hell, than a traditional Requiem Mass, and that since it didn’t talk about these things, there was no overt Christian dogma.  After all, we all know that what religion, and especially Christianity, is really all about is judgment and hellfire and all that.  Christianity is there to make us afraid of death, of a wrathful deity who will torment us if we don’t do what he wants.  Things like hope and comfort in the face of death, confidence of joy in the hereafter, etc., all that is quite natural and commonplace, not Christian at all.  Thus does Mr. Colborne betray the benighted ingratitude of modernity.  For of course, in the ancient world, it was clear that the precise opposite was the case.  Any pagan could’ve told you that death was fearful and terrifying, that we would probably face a wrathful deity and more than likely suffer torments after death if we fail to placate him.  Ancient religions may have disagreed about many things, but one thing they could agree on: joyful hope in the face of death, confident in a gracious God who had triumphed over death and would restore you to bodily existence, was delusional optimism.  And yet, so thoroughly has this delusional optimism triumphed, that we now take a vague and watered-down form of it (having quietly substituted the immortality of the soul for bodily resurrection) for granted, and dismiss Christianity as having nothing to offer but a return to morbidity.