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Saturday, June 10, 2023

The Strikingly Christian Funeral of Queen Elizabeth II

The Queen was rightly and well eulogized in various ceremonies in the past week. The day of her funeral was a day for prayer. 

Newsroom (20/09/2022 9:45 PM Gaudium Press) — Incorporating noteworthy contributions from Catholics, the Church of England provided a model to all Christians for how funerals ought to be conducted.

It was the grandest state funeral in history for history’s longest-serving monarch. 

First and last, though, it was a Christian funeral. 

The Church of England rendered a signal service to all Christians in providing a model for how funerals ought to be conducted in a time when both sacred and civic funeral liturgies have become rather emaciated.

The Priority of Prayer 

The Queen was rightly and well eulogized in various ceremonies in the past week. The day of her funeral was a day for prayer. 

From the moment the funeral cortege entered Westminster Abbey to the singing of I Am the Resurrection and the Life, the mystery of death and eternal life took precedence over all others. 

“We will all face the merciful judgment of God,” preached the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. 

The archbishop preached a magnificent funeral homily, a model for all Christian funeral preaching. He preached truths about the Queen’s “servant leadership” but presented her as a Christian disciple first and monarch second. The day included the height of British pomp and pageantry, but Archbishop Welby noted that “death is the door to glory.” 

The sheer length of the Queen’s life and reign were underscored as her earthly remains passed underneath the statues of the 20th-century martyrs installed over the abbey’s great west door for the millennium. The Queen was born three years before Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth, and when she came to the abbey for her wedding in 1947, St. Maximilian Kolbe had not even been dead a decade. 

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Completely absent were speeches by secular officers of state. And to that welcome silence was added the profound, even palpable silence of the enormous crowds around the abbey and along the mall to Buckingham Palace. It was a manifestation of reverence, a public virtue much required for a healthy common life. 

The Richness of Ritual

The ritual for a deceased monarch is richer than for any other, and the funeral masterfully permitted the ritual to speak. The congregation in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor stood in silence as the instruments of the Queen’s earthly power — the orb, sceptre and imperial state crown — were removed from the coffin and placed on the high altar. Then they sang Christ Is Made the Sure Foundation. What more needs to be said about the basis for all authority?

Catholic liturgy might learn something. Our current graveside rituals are banal. Contrast those with the sight of the coffin being lowered into the royal vault while the dean of Windsor recited Psalm 103:

“For he knoweth our frame;

he remembereth that we are dust.

As for man, his days are as grass:

as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth.

For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone;

and the place thereof shall know it no more.”

Then he recited the stirring and solemn prayer, “Go forth Christian soul, from this world …”

Too often at Catholic burials, the coffin is left alone above ground, and the prayers are less than satisfactory. The combination of Psalm 130 and “Go forth …” as the coffin was lowered would be a significant improvement.

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The Catholic Contribution

Though Catholic funeral rites could learn a great deal from the Queen’s funeral, there was included a noteworthy Catholic presence.

The first reading from 1 Corinthians — “O grave, where is thy victory?” — was read by Baroness Janet Scotland, herself a rather regal presence. Born in Dominica into a Catholic family which emigrated to Britain, she rose to serve in the British cabinet before becoming secretary general of the Commonwealth. In that capacity, she was chosen to read, and her very presence — a Black Catholic from the Caribbean — demonstrated the expansiveness of the late Queen’s vision.

Sir James MacMillan, knighted by Queen Elizabeth, one of the leading Catholic composers in the world, composed a setting of Who Can Separate Us? especially for the funeral, a high honour in one of the great sacred music settings anywhere.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster was present and read a prayer for the Commonwealth. Also present in places of honour were Archbishops Eamon Martin of Armagh (Northern Ireland) and Leo Cushley of St. Andrews and Edinburgh (Scotland). Their presence testified to how the Queen contributed much to healing the Anglican-Catholic divide in the United Kingdom.

In a touch of sheer liturgical genius, St. John Henry Newman was included at the committal service at St. George’s, the great bridge between the Anglican and Catholic traditions. Cardinal Newman’s inspired “Night Prayer” was invoked and should be included in every Christian funeral in the English-speaking world. My eyes filled with tears — not the only time on this day — when I heard it:

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“O Lord, support us all day long,

until the shadows lengthen,

and the evening comes,

and the busy world is hushed,

and the fever of life is over,

and our work is done.

Then, in your mercy,

grant us a safe lodging, a holy rest,

and peace at last. Amen.”

Most notable, though, was that the name most often spoken throughout the day’s obsequies was not that of Queen Elizabeth but Jesus Christ.

May Her Late Majesty rest in peace. And may God save the King.

– Raju Hasmukh with files from NCR



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