Yes, that´s how it goes. Crying out for some rain and then when it arrives – as the clock strikes four (16h00) – it´s just so inconvenient. I´m out on my bicycle for some exercise before it´s too dark. Repeatedly I considered turning around and heading back – and once in Pratau I actually did – just to come to my senses and continue on the cycle route “Elberadweg”. If you´re out, You might as well do the entire trip – rain or no rain. And rain here is never like an African thunderstorm. It´s more like a feint drizzle. Some distant reminder of the real thing. Nothing exiting and no reason to turn back from.
Well, on returning and zipping through „Mittelstraße“ (Middle Street) – with the double-barrel belfries of St. Mary´s pointing the way – a hearse was parked in front of St. John´s care center (Kursana). Two men clad in protective plastics from head to toe – full-facemasks too – were busy loading a big coffin into the back of the black van. Nobody else around. No congregation. No brass band. No pastor. No bells. Nothing. Just that busy couple stowing the coffin – much like the garbage disposal guys doing the rounds. Probably very much like those poor chaps doing the rounds during the pest – picking up corpses, disinfecting the quarters and hoping all along to stay alive (cf Thomas Kaufmann: Pest & Cholera. Remember: Pest & corona have not much in common as Mirko Gutjahr rightly points out.)
Still, what a difference to the way Lutherans used to do it – even here in Wittenberg. Today isolation is first priority – and I believe – the ultimate calamity for the aged, ill and dying. Being left alone in the time of suffering and final expiring must be one of the worst struggles we face. And what a comfort it is to have somebody hold Your hand, give a sip of water and even recite a psalm or hymn – even as death draws near. Family, fellow parishioners, elders, pastors too. Never really alone, but then again Luther does remind us in his Invocavit sermons, that in the end, we do have to face death alone… The figures in spacesuits are probably even less comforting than a friar in a black gown – especially if that friar quotes familiar gospel and sings our favorite hymns. From my parish days I recall the elaborate proceedings of coming to death and dying, but also of funerals. It was like the grand finale – and happy ending of this earthly story and the move to the next, higher and much better level of heavenly bliss – even as we said our farewells to the blessed departed. It has a lot to do with our faith in the “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” (Apostolic Creed).
Obviously, it´s not just old people dying but young ones too. Angelika recalls her father bearing her still-born brother on his shoulder to the grave at a small and subdued funeral there in Lüneburg. I remember the funeral of her drowned brother Martin. It was the first time, I visited the Scharlachs back then. Most vivid in my mind however is the funeral of her eldest brother Werner in Kirchdorf – with the long guard of honor, church bells ringing and the congregation singing to the accompaniment of the brass band. Now we´ve buried both our fathers too. We are next in line. And I now look forward to the day, when our good Lord will come to meet us, take us by the hand and carry us back home – at last.
We´re not there yet. We still get a fright, when we get home and there´s a hearse parked in front of the gate. Those scares still face us even if we know, that death has lost its sting and Jesus Christ is Lord of all – and that we belong to Him in life as well as in death. We still mourn at sickbeds and open graves too. However, we don´t mourn as those, who have no hope. Saying goodbyes is never easy – not even for Christians – and just like my forebears, I just don´t get used to saying farewell and going my way. My dear father used to say: “Die gemis bly!” (Something like “Absence lingers”).
Last night, Angelika practiced the Advent hymn for the 4th Sunday in Advent on our chapel organ. The old words translated by John Mason Neale (1818-1866) into English verbalize our plea, hope, trust and sure comfort in these dire straits:
1 O come, O come, Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.
Refrain: Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel shall come to you, O Israel.
2 O come, O Wisdom from on high, who ordered all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show and teach us in its ways to go. Refrain
3 O come, O come, great Lord of might, who to your tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times did give the law in cloud and majesty and awe. Refrain
4 O come, O Branch of Jesse’s stem, unto your own and rescue them!
From depths of hell your people save, and give them victory o’er the grave. Refrain
5 O come, O Key of David, come and open wide our heavenly home.
Make safe for us the heavenward road and bar the way to death’s abode. Refrain
6 O come, O Bright and Morning Star, and bring us comfort from afar!
Dispel the shadows of the night and turn our darkness into light. Refrain
7 O come, O King of nations, bind in one the hearts of all mankind.Psalter Hymnal (Gray)
Bid all our sad divisions cease and be yourself our King of Peace. Refrain