Repost: Why Wasn't JPII Buried in Simple Shroud?

Since today is 3 years since the very affecting funeral of John Paul II, thought I’d repost:

An email from a reader:I’m asking this because I think you will answer me respectfully. The service today was beautiful but wasn’t it too much? Jesus was buried in a simple shroud, and he was God. What we saw today bordered on idolatry. I have no problems with Catholics, I do believe you are Christians, but I think you are misguided on this.

Sigh. Really, I am NOT an apologist. I have no energy for it, and don’t feel called to it as others do. But…thank you for your question.

A question from the email: I’m asking this because I think you will answer me respectfully. The service today was beautiful but wasn’t it too much? Jesus was buried in a simple shroud, and he was God. What we saw today bordered on idolatry. I have no problems with Catholics, I do believe you are Christians, but I think you are misguided on this.

I am not sure it makes any sense at all to compare the burial of Pope John Paul II to the burial of Jesus.
Jesus was buried in the manner of a wealthy man of his time — in a private cave hewn for that purpose and originally purchased by Joseph of Arimathea — so it could be argued that outside of pyramids and King’s tombs, Jesus’ burial arrangements (though rushed for Passover) were slightly better than average. He was wrapped in a shroud because that’s what was done, and is still done in that part of the world.

Currently, the average American citizen who has a wake, then a funeral service, flowers, an expensive casket, pall bearers with dignified bearing, readings, grieving and usually a supper to follow – a celebration of that person’s life. All in all, a much more elaborate burial than Jesus, who was (is) God. Times and customs and cultures do have an effect on things. If a beloved family member of yours dies, are you going to limit his or her burial to a shroud and a howdy-do, because that’s all Jesus got?
Remember, when Jesus was buried, his apostles didn’t know he was God. They thought he was a prophet. They’d thought maybe he was the messiah, but then, you know – things didn’t work out as people epected; he was tortured and killed and his followers went into hiding. They didn’t know what-and-whom they had, among them, until later. Had they known, there might have been quite a different send-off!

The Holy Mass you saw broadcast to the world — beautifully sung, beautifully carried out, calling on the prayers of the great Cloud of Witnesses who have gone before us — was not exclusively for John Paul. Yes, it praised and worshiped God, and it commended His Holiness to heaven while celebrating his faithfulness, but the liturgy was meant in part, for us. We are not machines, but humans, and when something important happens, as the loss of a loved one, our hearts hunger for meaning, but also for beauty, which is another transcendent means to God.

Millions traveled to Rome to prayerfully, lovingly see off a servant of Christ, and for their efforts, they saw beauty, they heard and felt beauty, they had the opportunity to pay their own tribute (“Sancto!”) and, most importantly, they got to participate in the communion of faith, and to commune personally with the Lord Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.

The people kneeling on the cobblestone of St. Peter’s Baslica were not kneeling for Pope John Paul II; they were kneeling while Communing with the Lord.

Liturgy does not only instruct; it also entertains, by engaging mind, soul and senses in a way that we move forward with interest and curiosity, until it enables understanding to become transcendent. The writer Rumer Godden put it more succinctly: “the blessing of the liturgy,” she wrote, “is that it wipes out self.”

If you belong to an Evangelical church, you probably have musicians and singers at your service, and that music they provide is uplifting, it brings another dimension to worship. Just so with the liturgy, and with all of that pomp you found disturbing. Far from being idolatry in the name of Pope John Paul II, it was the vehicle used for the delivery of our uplifted hearts, to Christ. John Paul didn’t care; he was already in heaven!

Our beloved pope was remembered with love. He was dressed in fine robes (when we buried Grandma we put her in her best dress – what else?). His casket was incensed, because incense both reflects our Judaic heritage, it echos the psalmist: “let our prayers rise like incense.” The angel in Revelation dispenses cleansing incense pretty liberally, so God would seem to like it. Then, after the mass, his body was solemnly processed and lain to rest.
It is all we would do for any of our loved ones, just on a scale calculated to uplift not just thirty or forty mourners, but a couple billion.

Perhaps you were troubled by the crowds chanting “Sancto! Sancto,” and that is what seemed idolatrous to you, but consider this: at my son’s high school, one of the athletes died, tragically, of cancer. The funeral convoy drove past the school, and all of the students had assembled outside. They stood solemnly and then applauded and waved to the hearse and to his parents, shouting his name, his team number – they shouted “we miss him!” and “your son was great!” loud enough for the parents to hear it. Was that idolatry, or a simple, heartfelt last opportunity to praise a much-loved fellow?
It’s just a tribute. No one left St. Peter’s having worshipped Karol Wojtyla, and no one left there unsure of who is the Savior of the world.

But they did leave St. Peter’s with full hearts, having had a chance to do what my son’s classmates did for their fallen friend — to remember and pay a little tribute — and they got to do it surrounded by visual and aural beauty so that all of their senses participated in the worship of the Creator of so much that is still so mysterious to us all.
I’m glad you wrote to me about your concerns, and I hope I helped put them to rest. If I haven’t all I can say is, well, I am not that smart, and someone else may do better job of explaining it all. But, as John Paul himself said many times – do not be afraid! It may seem very strange to Christians with no traditions or rituals to fall back on. But don’t be afraid to dip a big toe into the lake of liturgy. It doesn’t burn, I promise!

PS…speaking only for myself, that funeral today made me long to hear more (or, ANY) Gregorian Chant at mass. I really hunger for it. Enough of the feel-good campfire-type songs, please!

Related: The Holy Spirit Stirs, then Ravishes

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Ruth Anne

    It seems to me this post has gotten better with the passage of time—and it was quite good the first time! You have a respectful kindness of these inquisitors which I highly respect.

  • Bender B. Rodriguez

    It was because of the funeral — and my need and the need of so many others to reach out and touch others who also loved John Paul II — that I discovered persons such as the Anchoress.

    As for the fact that “Jesus was buried in a simple shroud, and he was God” — if that is the test, if a funeral today that goes beyond wrapping someone in the functional equivilent of a bedsheet and leaving them in a cave, if we instead put them in their “Sunday best” and a tastefully nice casket and have a meal together afterward, if that is to be considered idolatry, then we really have strayed into the absurd.

    By the way, Jesus was not merely buried in a simple shroud — He was first annointed with very expensive oils, which led one particular Apostle to complain that it was too extravagent, and giving the implication that it was immoral because the money could have been used for the poor. Moreover, He was then placed in the tomb of a fairly well-to-do person — again, not a simple tomb or simple plot in the rocky ground. Indeed, Jesus “funeral” was about as extravagent as the situation and short time allowed could be.

  • TheAnchoress

    Bender thanks for making those points – I had made them three years ago but somehow had a coding problem when I reposted. Corrected now! :-)

  • karen

    I wondered, A, if this person that e-mailed the question got back to you w/any follow up or comments on your through answer? Were they ~appeased~(for lack of any better word that fits to come to mind)?

    Bender- i did the same thing- searching for solance and touching like minds- during Terri Shaivio’s ruling of death. I was ever fearful of the ‘net before that, but watching the destruction of a woman that wasn’t hurting anyone, wasn’t taking up more than her fair share of God-given space… made to suffer worse than than a PETA-supported animal; i had to know how others were dealing.

    That anniversary was only a little while ago& it STILL hurts. BObama’s words of regret in support of her life through a vote- sickens me.

  • karen

    … through = thorough. Sometimes words just look so strange…

  • TheAnchoress

    Karen, honestly, I don’t recall. That particular week was the first time I’d ever had HUGE hits, between live-blogging the death of JPII and all that went on, covering the coverage, the stuff leading up to the funeral and more email than ever before. Sometimes people write back – I remember the one who asked me about “orgies at mass” wrote back nicely. But I can’t remember if this guy did.

  • Hbay

    I was privileged to hear Dave Brubeck in Louisville last year. He had adapted a chant and he told the audience a wonderful story. They had played at Notre Dame the week before and he was so excited when the group began to play this adapted piece that wasn’t quite finished yet and didn’t really have an ending and the audience SANG the chant. He was glad because now he followed the audience’s singing and ended the piece when the chant was finished.

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