On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food,
a feast of well-aged wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples;
he will swallow up death forever.
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If you go to Jerusalem, to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, just in front of you as you walk in you’ll see a long, flat stone on the floor, surrounded by candlesticks at each corner, with a row of lamps hanging above.
This is the Stone of Unction; the anointing stone. It commemorates the anointing of the body of Jesus, after he was taken down off the cross, before his burial. If you stand nearby and watch, you’ll see people coming in: pilgrims, locals, Christians from all around the world, the pious, and some of the just curious as well. Many come in, go straight to the stone, kneel or prostrate themselves, and press faces and hands against it, kissing it, venerating this symbol of the loving care of Jesus’ friends for his crucified body.
Some people do more than this. Especially among Orthodox Christians, it’s customary to buy a linen shroud to save for one’s own burial, and to bless it by bringing it to the Anointing Stone. As you lay out your shroud on the cool, long, flat stone, you unite your own death with the death of Christ. And then you have your shroud: something to take home, knowing it will one day be spread out over your body when it lies in death, a tangible symbol that your own death is wrapped up in that of the one who has gone before you.
It’s said that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the only religious building in the world that is built around a tomb with no one inside. There are lots of shrines and temples and churches built around tombs, of course; but most of them are significant because of the body that is inside. This one is significant because of the body that’s not inside. Jesus had a burial shroud of his own; the resurrection stories tell us that the disciples found it lying rolled up in the tomb. Somehow, in the mystery of that holy night, Jesus took off his burial shroud and put on immortality.
But tonight we commemorate all those whose tombs are still full, all those who still sleep beneath their burial shrouds.
We all die.
We are dust, and to dust we shall indeed return. You and I and all seven billion people on the surface of the earth today, along with the hundred billion or so who have come and gone before us. Set against the history of time, each of those individual stories can seem impossibly small. And yet each one is irreplaceable and unique. They are for us, of course. Each of us knows and loves people who have died. Most of us have loved ones in mind and in heart tonight. And our faith insists that they are no less known and loved and irreplaceable in the heart of God who made them and who knows every hair that ever grew on their heads.
Death is hard to face: our own, and that of those we love. There are some deaths that seem good, or at least fitting: deaths that come peacefully, without struggle or pain. And there are many deaths that do not seem good at all: the death of a child; the death that comes through violence, through war, through sudden disaster; the death that comes too early; the death, sometimes, that takes too long to come. Our deaths are as unique as our lives. But each death, even the ones that come easily, is a loss. It leaves a hole in the fabric of humanity. It leaves a hole in the hearts of those who grieve.
We come together each week to celebrate a liturgy that puts us directly in touch with the deep mystery of life and death. We do this in remembrance of someone scripture calls the firstfruits of those who have died: the only one, so far, who has passed through both death and what God has in store for us after death. We have so little idea of what that is that we can only talk about it in pictures: the prophet Isaiah’s rich feast on the holy mountain; the book of Revelation’s picture of the holy city, a new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven. When we celebrate baptism we proclaim the Apostles’ Creed, which insists that we believe in that very mysterious phrase, the “resurrection of the body.” St. Paul uses the analogy of a seed and a plant: the risen identity that is to come is continuous with the physical people we are now, just as a plant is continuous with a seed and yet also different altogether.
Now St. Paul had seen the risen Jesus—and yet he never describes what he saw. He can only resort to this language of poetry and mystery; the reality is too great for simple visual description. But he knows that it is Jesus whom he saw: the one who has passed through death and out the other side, and who holds our own destiny in his loving hands.
The dead will be raised, says Paul, and we will be changed: this perishable body will put on imperishability; this mortal body will put on immortality like a garment.
At Christian funerals we drape the caskets of our loved ones with a special kind of shroud: the plain white pall that recalls the white robe in which we clothe the newly baptized. When we are baptized we really and truly “put on Christ.” And when we die, we carry that garment with us. So, for Christians, even the very shroud we wear in death is a token of the garment of immortality. God will transform our burial shroud into the heavenly wedding robe. And we will put it on when the trumpet sounds, to wake us into new life, and to call us to the great banquet.
For now we live by faith; but in the resurrection of Jesus we have God’s pledge that there is yet more to come. On that day, at that table, the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast, an abundant feast that never ends. But even now, at this table, we have a foretaste of that feast of rich food; of well-aged wines strained clear.