Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Preserving t/Tradition

Some of the chant tones of the Liturgy go back to the time when East and West were united, a few are even more ancient and seem to back the Temple, because they are not only common to both East and West but are also found in Jewish Liturgy.
It is the ancientness of things that are passed on that fascinates me. Hearing, singing music heard and sung by Christ himself with Apostles gives me a quiet thrill, it speaks of the deep rootedness of our faith. The presence of these things in the Liturgy reminds me of the nature of Divine Providence preserving and guiding the Church. The reforms of the 60s and 70s remind us of the fragility of these things, except in a few monastic establishments the whole canon of the Church's chant could almost have been lost.

There are other things which are tradere, handed on, which if not of Dominical  or Apostolic origin are so ancient and were somehow preserved within the rites and very culture of the Church. Paul VI, apparently, intervened personally to retain the mixing of water and wine, for example, that is most probably of Dominical origin. The triple signing with the cross before the Gospel too seems of pretty ancient origin, some suggesting an origin in Ezekiel 9:4 and Temple worship. The very conservative nature of the Roman Church means that possibly more has been preserved in the West than the East.

What we do is incredibly fragile, it can be easily lost, destroyed or cast into oblivion by accident. Balthazar speaks about a dimple, a tiny blemish, being integral to a face and ultimately to a person's identity. We do the Church no service, and possibly we do the Gospel itself a serious harm by discarding those things passed on to us, even if we end up by doing things we do not understand.

There are other things that are of ancient origin, not least, our rites surrounding death.
I was a little shocked to read this account of a Bishop's cremation, I am indebted personally to Bishop Michael, he taught me a little theology and showed me kindness, and I admired him not only for his devotion through a long illness to his people I also admired his attention to Justice and Peace issues which was deeply rooted in his theolgy of the Trinity and the Incarnation.

Whilst many of the martyrs were burnt, their bodies reduced to ashes, Christians, from the beginning, have always buried their dead; in many cultures it has been the thing that distinguished Christians from pagans. The present code of Canon Law, it could be argued, accepts or at least tolerates cremation, however it still demands a place "of rest" for the remains, scattering is certainly not a Catholic option, Christians should have a "grave" but does it matter how we end up in our "grave"?
Throughout Christian history diverse practices have followed death. "Sepulchre" literally means "flesh eater" and although in the case of the great their bodies might have rested permantly in their sepulchre, in many places bodies were their until the flesh had gone, in Naples burial in a grave is for a limited time, (7 years?) after which the body is removed and placed in tomb normally in a wall or columbarium, the Capuchins in Rome bury and then arrange the bones of deceased brethren (tastefully?) in their crypt. Crusaders used to boil the flesh of their more important fallen comrades and return the bones to their homeland, and although the bones might have crushed to fit them into a smaller container for ease of shipping, they were never pulverised, as happens after a modern cremation. It was always considered not the ideal.
There is something important about reverence and somehow preserving the the integrity of the body in our tradition (small "t", customs) or should that be "our Tradition" (big "T" handing on of the faith). The Reluctant Sinner makes various obsevation about relics, the resurrection of the body and so forth, he doesn't say that an important issue is that we do what Christ did, or was done to him, even if we don't understand it.

In truth we do not really know why burial itself was so important to our forefathers, it just was, and it seems dangerous to go against what has been handed on to us, lest throwing out bathwater babies are discarded too.


Ma Tucker said...

We burry treasures and burn rubbish by instinct don't we?

The Dignity of the Grave said...

The Catholic Church has always been the greatest defender of the dignity of the individual from conception to natural death. And after death, that the body must be treated with the greatest respect and disposed of in the most dignified and fitting manner. Some years ago, an old lady acquaintance of mine was asked whether she wished to be buried or cremated. She was quite horrified at the question and replied that she most certainly wished to be buried. "People bury their treasure and burn their rubbish", was her retort. Without wishing to offend anyone's sensibilities, I agree with her.

Terry said...

"...an important issue is that we do what Christ did, or was done to him, even if we don't understand it."


Surely we should strive to understand.
Christ added to the Jewish commandment to love the Lord thy God... with all thy MIND, a word not present in the OT original.

Michael Petek said...

According to Cicero, in Rome, burial was practised, while the most honoured citizens were most typically cremated. Especially upper classes and members of imperial families.

Throughout parts of mediaeval Europe, cremation was forbidden by law, and even punishable by death if combined with heathen rites.

A Reluctant Sinner said...

Thank you for your post. Like you, I knew Bishop Michael, too. It's why I decided to post about the cremation in as sensitive a way as possible. I also know that many will be shocked by this "final" act of his.

I think it a shame that he chose to this means of disposition, as opposed to traditional Christian burial. I agree with you, Fr Blake, that it is important for Christians to try and do as Christ would do. He was buried, and in doing that he left an example for us. One wonders whether there could have been a resurrection if 1st Century Jews cremated their dead?

Also, when I come across these matters which are tolerated by the Church, but don't conform to the Church's tradition, I always try and ask "what would a saint do?" or "what would the pope do?" As I can never imagine a pope or saint choosing to be cremated, it stands to reason that the best (or more reverent) course of action, usually and in ordinary circumstances, would be burial.

May Bishop Evans rest in peace.



Fr Ray Blake said...

Circumcision? It was dealt with in Apostolic times, with a great deal of pain if you read behinds Acts and the Epistles...

The thing is we are not the Apostles, we are called to retain their teaching not to discard it. We are are the servants of Revelation and should pass it intact, which is what I was trying to say.

Victor said...

I share your uneasiness about a Catholic bishop being cremated. Your words about Traditions are spot on!
By the way, where did you get the information about the Gregorian chant being of synagogical origin? I already read about it once, but never could find proof. My mother is protestant and we once discussed chant; if I could show her it is rooted in Jewish practise it would perhaps convince her of it's great value.
Another small thing: I think you will find that the Greek "sarcophague" means "Body eater"; "Sepulchre" is simply "tomb" in Latin

Gigi said...

Hi. There is a problem here that hasn't been touched on. I had lived in London from birth before I moved to Brighton, and in some areas there were literally no more plots available in Catholic cemetaries, or the allocated "Catholic areas" in other cemetaries. When my Mum died, we bought a grave (sounds awful doesn't it?) in a pretty graveyard, in the countryside, in the allocated Catholic area. We could only afford the one plot, which will enable two burials with coffins and up to six burials of cremated remains. So far there are only me and my sister and her husband; as the youngest sibling, I've already accepted that I'll probably be buried there in a rather more compact form!
My Mum was certainly of the opinion of her generation of Catholics that you meet The Maker "whole". In an ideal life and death, I would also opt for that. But if I can be laid to rest with the people I have loved, in a place sacred to the faith I have loved, so be it.

Dilly said...

I had a relative die in Turin in the 1980s- their burial space was rented for 20 years.

When my father was a child in the 1920s in Birkenhead, a Catholic sailor brought home smallpox and his whole family died (RIP). The parish priest sought and received permission from the Bishop to allow cremation - permission was given because of the grave danger of smallpox germs living on in the soil. That is how seriously these things were taken then.

Anagnostis said...

The very conservative nature of the Roman Church means that possibly more has been preserved in the West than the East.
I think this would be an extraordinarily "challenging" claim to support, even theoretically, and disregarding the wholesale destruction of the twentieth century. The Roman Church's legendary conservatism did not, alas, long outlast St Gregory the Great. Frankish domination put an end to it entirely.

Michael (post-grad theology student) said...

"...One wonders whether there could have been a resurrection if 1st Century Jews cremated their dead?".

This comment is of the type "how many angels can dance on a pin-head" and is equally futile and anti-rational. It questions the omniscience of our Creator God in a strangely un-Catholic way.
It is so bizarre that one wonders if it is a wind-up?

"What about another such Thomistic puzzler as whether the hair and nails will grow following the Resurrection."?

I pray that the descendants of our cremated elder brothers and sisters in the Faith, whose ashes we walk on at Auschwitz do not concern themselves on this issue. God is Love.

May the Bishop rest in peace.

New Catholic said...

"God is love". Such a profound definition used so carelessly to defend and justify every manner of abomination. We should be more careful with the words of Holy Writ.

Anonymous said...

To bury the dead is a corporal work of mercy.
It says much about contemporary Christianity that such basics have been forgotten.


Not a New Catholic, John said...

"God is Love"


"...Saint Paul, in his hymn to charity (cf. 1 Cor 13)...“If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (v. 3). This hymn must be the Magna Carta of all ecclesial service."

Ignatius said...

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, following canon law: 'The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body' (section 2301). One imagines that Bishop Evans did believe in the resurrection of the body: why criticise him for acting in accordance with church teaching? The bodies of those who are buried will sooner or later be reduced to dust just as much as those who are cremated, so our resurrection cannot depend on the body being buried. The pious tradition is simply mistaken, and true respect for tradition cannot mean clinging to outdated fables just because they are traditional.
In crowded cities where space for burial is severely limited, those who opt for cremation could be said to be acting unselfishly for the good of society. Is that not just as important as upholding what some insist has to be "Catholic tradition"?

Unknown said...

It would seem that in the Far East burial is not regarded as acceptable Other bishops would appear to have been cremated

From a quick Google search, here are a few links:

(Father Z) http://wdtprs.com/blog/2009/10/prc-interferes-wtih-the-funeral-of-a-bishop/

(UCA News) http://www.ucanews.com/2010/11/12/vietnam-bishops-ashes-returned/

And in the USA:

(USA Top News) http://topnews.us/content/229944-bishop-steinbock-succumbs-lung-cancer

Like you I am uneasy about the practice of cremation. I wonder if this is more cultural ?

Louis said...

In Communist mainland China cremation is compulsory by law. Most traditionally minded Chinese, I guess, would prefer burial, which can, in fact, be done illegally.

Outside the mainland, i.e. in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, cremation is also the norm because burial is prohibitively expensive. For example, in HK the price of a permanent grave (for a single coffin) starts from about £20K-25K GBP! A feng shui compliant site would cost several times that figure (believe me, even Catholics go in for that geomancy stuff). The Catholic cemeteries in HK no longer sell permanent graves. Most HK burials are in temporary graves where the remains have to be exhumed after 7 years, and the remains reburied (sometimes cremated beforehand) in a columbarium.

This report from time magazine illustrates the problem in HK
A Cemetery's Waitlist

Anne said...

The Bishop was confident of his future.
SEE video:


Let him rest in peace.

A Reluctant Sinner said...

@ Michael (post-grad theology student)

I most definitely do not deny the omnipotence of God, and truly believe that He can raise up children for Abraham from stones (cf Mt 3:9). God could save the whole of humanity by some great miracle if He so wished, but doesn't. His omnipotence is greater - He demonstrates His superior power through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ: "who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but rather emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and being found in human form, became humbler yet..." (cf Philippians 2). Our Lord could have called upon legions of the Heavenly Host to come to his aid instead of choosing to die on a Cross (cf Mt 26:53) but chose not to, because God's ways are very different to ours - even in the way He chooses to exercise His power.

The plain fact of the matter is that Jesus was raised from the dead in the body. Not from a pile of ash or some magic, but through a mystery that promotes God's love of and use of the human body. It put our flesh at the centre of our Catholic faith, it is the ultimate act - finishing the work of the Incarnation - of making our bodies divine in nature.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it: We firmly believe, and hence we hope that, just as Christ is truly risen from the dead and lives for ever, so after death the righteous will live for ever with the risen Christ and he will raise them up on the last day (cf Jn 6). Our resurrection, like his own, will be the work of the Most Holy Trinity: If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit who dwells in you. (cf Rom 8:11; cf. 1 Thess 4:14; 1 Cor 6:14; 2 Cor 4:14; Phil 3:10-11)... The "resurrection of the flesh" (the literal formulation of the Apostles' Creed) means not only that the immortal soul will live on after death, but that even our "mortal body" will come to life again.(cf Rm 8). (CCC 989 - 991)

Again, the Catechism teaches us: (999) Christ is raised with his own body: "See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself";(Lk 24:39) but he did not return to an earthly life. So, in him, "all of them will rise again with their own bodies which they now bear," but Christ "will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body," into a "spiritual body": (cf Lateran Council IV (1215): Phil 3:21; 1 Cor 15:44). The body we now have is already the eternal Temple of the Living God, which will be raised not as a completely different creation, but as an immortal fulfilment of God's plan. He does not choose to work as a Paul Daniel's character, but wishes to sanctify the work of His hands - the human body.

As for calling the Jewish people our "elder brothers", Pope Benedict XVI has already made it quite clear that this "is not so welcome to the Jews". Please see Light of the World (Ignatius 2010 pg 82): "The phrase 'elder brothers'...is not so welcome to the Jews. The reason is that, in the Jewish tradition, the 'elder brother' - Esau - is also the brother that gets rejected...But it is true that they are our "fathers in the faith". And this way of putting it illustrates perhaps even more clearly the character of our relationship with each other."

Like, Pope Benedict XVI, I believe it is important for us to be sensitive to the feelings of our "fathers in the faith".

Student Michael said...

@ Reluctant Sinner

With apologies and respect, (I am merely a student), I think you miss my point probably because my comment was badly worded.
I notice you have drawn the debate to a close in the interest of those who mourn.

I referred to God's OMNISCIENCE.
It is surely clear from the Scriptures that the resurrected body is a different (or greatly modified) creation, not a resuscitated corpse (not always recognisable in the case of the resurrected Christ remember).

A literalist interpretation is what I felt to be un-Catholic on an issue that must, with our limited human knowledge, remain a mystery.
What surely matters is the living.
"Blessed are those who mourn" comforted in the knowledge that"...Christ "will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body," as you quote(regardless of the fate our our human remains)

On the "elder brothers"/"Fathers in the Faith" issue, what matters is, not the title, but the well-being of those who need to have confidence that the ashes they walk on, the cremated remains of tortured bodies, are of no importance to the ultimate destination of their loved ones which is in the hands of a loving God who knows when a humble sparrow falls.

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