One of my favorite pieces of choral music to listen to and meditate upon is called Funeral Ikos. Written by the English composer John Tavener, the text is taken from a part of the Order of Burial for a Priest in a service book of the Orthodox Church. The beauty of the prayer lies in its expression of the two emotions of the Christian surrounding death. It keeps a tension between the uncertainty we feel about our life beyond the grave and our hope and confidence in eternal life.
In the beginning of the piece are sung the words “But whither I go understand I not, neither what shall become of me yonder; only God who hath summoned me knoweth.” Who of us can’t relate to these words? Only God knows my ultimate destiny – and that can be somewhat disconcerting! The song continues, explaining the reality of what will happen to all of us as we tread the path eternal and present ourselves before the judgement seat of God. “Where then is comeliness? Where then is wealth? Where then is the glory of this world? There shall none of these things aid us, but only to say oft the psalm: Alleluia.” It presents us with this problem of death, decay, loss, and the gravity of coming into the presence of the All-Holy God. All of the worldly successes of this life will mean absolutely nothing there. The beauty of our bodies will decay and rot. The dollar bills we clutch in our fleshly hands will slip away as our souls ascend to God. The titles before our names and the degrees and honors we append to them will vanish vainly like smoke. It will just be the bare soul before its creator. If we cannot take those things with us, what can we take?
The piece continues:
If thou hast shown mercy unto man, O man,
That same mercy shall be shown thee there;
And if on an orphan thou hast shown compassion,
That same shall there deliver thee from want.
If in this life the naked thou hast clothed,
The same shall give thee shelter there,
And sing the psalm:
These are the treasures that we will take with us! The good deeds that we have done to our brothers and sisters in the name of God and by His grace. (cf. Rom. 2:6) These are the treasures that do not slip out of our hands and are incapable of vanishing. We can confidently approach death and stand joyfully before the throne of God at the end of our lives if we have stored up for ourselves these treasures that “neither moth nor rust consumes.” (Mt. 6:20) Let us be content with being poor in the eyes of this world so that we may be rich in heaven!
Br. Benedict Mary Bartsch, O.P. | Meet the Brothers in Formation HERE
Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP