Friday, January 5, 2018

Funeral Preaching from Holy Saturday’s View: Another Reason to Observe the Vigil of Easter

This posting from the issue of Liturgy dealing with “Death and the Liturgy” is by Todd Townshend, dean of the faculty of theology at Huron University College in London, Ontario, and Canon Theologian for the Diocese of Huron. The excerpt here explores the valuable insights a preacher can glean from Holy Saturday for funeral sermons.

Everyone who has experienced the death of a loved one will know what Good Friday feels like. A number of years ago, while working pastorally with a family who had lost an adult child, I was given tremendous pastoral assistance while reading Alan E. Lewis’s book, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday (Eerdmans, 2003). . . to prepare for Lent and the great celebrations of Easter. The pastoral implications were almost limitless. Holy Saturday is a powerful perspective from which to preach, because Jesus is dead in the tomb. By sundown Friday, the first of the Great Three Days of Easter, Jesus was buried in a dark silent tomb. . .
 The followers of Jesus would not have known that this was “the second day” of the Three Great Days of Easter; they would only have known it as the day after the end. . . . Unless we celebrate the Vigil, we may tend to skip right from Jesus dying on the cross on Friday, to the empty tomb and resurrection on Sunday, maybe because nothing is said about the second day, or maybe because nothing was said on the second day. It was dark, and silent. God said nothing.
 . . . It is a moment of vulnerability. . . The manner of speaking in those moments of life is similar to the way we speak when we present ourselves before the cross or at Jesus’ tomb. We want to avoid overconfidence and giving the impression that we comprehend it all. God’s powerful weakness resists explanation.
 As those whose lives are bound to Christ in baptism, we know that we have died with Christ and so we also rise with Christ. Therefore, the preacher may explore what it means for us to live out of the Holy Saturday perspective. This takes time and some space for the imagination to work. If we want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, we go where Jesus went in our theological imagination so that we might better recognize the terrain in our own lives and choose the path of life and promise when death comes near.
 This imaginative work can be shared with worshipers, guiding them on similar paths, through the preaching. The theology, messages, and images offered to the faithful about death cannot be absent nor without ambiguity. Two or more contradictory or opposite truths can be true at the same time. “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” When preachers and others use comfortable but worn-out phrases such as “Heaven as Home,” “Journey to the Angels,” and “Natural Immortality,” claiming that “death cannot defeat us,” we miss the creative tension that is revealed in the narrative of Christ’s death, entombment, and resurrection. The time of entombment, Saturday, is the time that many people experience in their own lives right now. This perspective can hold us in a better tension—with better integrity—as we seek to offer hope in the Gospel.

The full essay is available in Liturgy 33, no. 1 available by personal subscription and through many libraries. Here are some resources available for understanding the development and transformation of funeral sermons and funeral rituals (from a primarily Protestant American perspective):

  • Lucy Bregman, Preaching Death (Baylor Univ. Press, 2011)
  • Thomas G. Long, Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral (WJK, 2009)
  • Luke Powery, Dem Dry Bones: Preaching, Death, and Hope (Fortress Press, 2012)
  • Melinda Quivik, contributing ed., In Sure and Certain Hope: A Funeral Sourcebook (Augsburg Fortress, 2017)


Todd Townshend, “What Can Death Teach Us About Preaching,” Liturgy 33, no. 1 (2017): 49-55.

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