Isaiah 46:3-4 (ESV) 3 “Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from before your birth, carried from the womb; 4 even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.
The days and life of all people begin before birth in the heart of God. Then, (hopefully) we are given the breath of life in our natural births. In the coarse of this life, by grace, humanity is given the gift of faith in the true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This faith lives and grows strong in the worship of God which is none other than speaking to God what He has spoken to us in His Word.
Sometimes the worship of God begins in the womb, as with John the Baptist. Usually we think of Christian worship being a life long endeavor, beginning corporately in the Rite of Baptism, continuing in Sunday worship and daily devotions, and magnified in the Lord’s Supper, and continuing till a Christian’s dying breath.
Why do we worship at the time of death. It is for the same reason we worship at any other time. It is in response to our salvation that has been accomplished through Christ’s suffering and death. It is a celebration of our new and eternal resurrection life. At death we remember who we are, “we are dust and to dust we will return. This is the the work of the law, “that the soul that sins shall surely die.” But we know, for the sake of Jesus, there is no longer any condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. Paraphrasing Jesus words at the resurrection of Lazarus – though we die, we do not die. Through Christ, by faith in Him, we cannot die. Even in death we celebrate our victory over the grave. What does Christian worship look like at the time of death. As we have various formal rites in the church, e.g. Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage, as well as the many rites of worship, we also have a rite called the Commendation of the dying. Below is a description of this rite that I wrote some time ago.
Human beings, as fallen creatures, are in desperate need of God’s grace and the means through which it is freely given. This is true throughout life. It is especially true at the end of life, where the consequences of sin are manifested so concretely. When death is imminent, the person dying, and their loved ones, need the presence of God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The one that comes to His people in the Divine Service also comes to them in the isolation of the deathbed. In the rite of Commendation, God uses His Word spoken through His instrument the pastor, to be present. With it He gives His forgiveness and the comfort that it brings. The pastor will want to be with His people as death draws near. Through God’s own Word he can give them the comfort and solace that only the gospel can give.
The rite begins with the greeting, “Peace be to this house and all who dwell here.” It reflects the sinner’s desperate need, which is peace. “Peace” is the word of Jesus the incarnate Son of God. It was the proclamation of the Angels at His coming in the flesh. It is His spoken word as He comes in the flesh after His resurrection, first to the disciples and now to us. It is not a feeling but a statement of condition. Those at enmity with God are now at peace with Him. Though death is judgment and condemnation, through faith in the risen one, there is forgiveness and life. The pastor comes as Christ and speaks His declaration – “peace”. It is a peace that it is given freely to all as it is given to all who reside. The Lord’s word of peace is not wishful thinking and consolation; rather it is a powerful Word. It is pure
gospel gift. As with all of God’s gifts it is received by faith alone.
The Kyrie and the Lord’s Prayer follow the greeting. As sinners we don’t deserve the peace that God offers. By the Spirit, and using the Lord’s word, sinners cry out for the mercy of the Lord which is mercy given only in Christ. It is the cry of those who are afflicted, like the woman whose daughter was possessed (Matt.15: 22), and the two blind men on the road (Matt. 20:30). It is a cry to the Lord for help. It is the cry of the dying. God, through His Word, gives the afflicted ones the words they need to call upon Him in trouble.
These are not the cries of strangers. We hear in the Lord’s Prayer the cries of His own dear children conceived through His Word and given birth in Baptism. This is a comforting Word that reminds that God is our loving Father. We are His children, sons and daughters, in and through His Son. For Christ’s sake we are His own family. He will never leave us or forsake us, even in death. Through the prayer Christ taught His church to pray, God’s children approach their Father, laying before Him their petitions and thanking Him for the blessings that He has given.
In rubric 6, the pastor declares that the prayers for mercy have indeed been heard. Our Lord responds to them through the pastor’s blessing, “Lord God, heavenly Father, look with favor upon your child, forgive all sins, and comfort with the promise of resurrection to life everlasting; through your Son Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.” The comfort of the gospel is freely given…”your sins are forgiven”. How are they forgiven? It is through Jesus Christ and His bloody work on the cross. What is God’s promise to you? It is resurrection and life declared in Christ’s own resurrection? This is pure gospel in the name of the Lord – Father Son and Holy Spirit.
The rite continues with a psalm. Again God’s Word proclaims the prayers and praise of His people. Any number of psalms may be used. I have found reciting psalm 23 most beneficial. Many people have committed this psalm to memory. Often, families would recite it with me, as a prayer most dear to their hearts as they and their loved ones indeed “walked through the shadow of death”… and looked to the promise of dwelling “in the house of the Lord forever.” Through the Psalms the Lord gives His people His words as prayer.
The Holy Scriptures are read. They are familiar readings reminding of the Lord’s mercy in Christ. Two of the pericopes proclaim the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ (Mark 16, John 20). Hope for the dying comes from the one who has conquered death. If He has been raised from the dead those who believe in Him shall also be raised as He was. John 3 reminds that God no longer condemns the sinner but saves him. This has been done because of His great love and has been accomplished through the giving of His only incarnate Son. Those who believe in Him shall be saved. He is the light of the world that shines into the darkness of the grave. Through Him people from every nation wear His robes of righteousness and stand before Him proclaiming His praise, “salvation belongs to our God”(Rev.7).
After the readings the Canticles, Magnificat, Te Deum, Litany or other hymns may be sung. In response to the Lord’s mercy the saved respond by singing hymns of praise. The picture that Revelation 7 gives in the last reading is not simply looking forward to the future; it pictures for us earthly worship done in the name of Jesus. The one dying stands at the throne of God, in this life, and soon in the next. The only change is perspective.
Following the hymn either the Agnus Dei or the Nunc Dimittis is sung. Worship continues even to the point of death. The Agnus Dei is a hymn of adoration sung to the Savior who is present to us in His body and blood. The Agnus Dei reminds the dying person that the Lord who has given forgiveness in His Supper is present now. The foretaste of the Supper in this life will soon continue in the feast of the Lamb. The Nunc Dimittis proclaims the great truth. By faith we have seen our Lord’s salvation in Jesus Christ. For Christians, there really is nothing left to see or wait for. Now, the salvation that has been seen by faith will be consummate.
The pastor then lays his hand on the head of the dying Christian and blesses him in the name of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is the name in which the Christian was baptized. It is the name in which they will depart from this life. This part of the rite points to Holy baptism where the Christians true death took place. From its waters a new creation in Christ Jesus emerged. There, eternity began, in the favor of God for His Son’s sake. These words give the dying person great comfort. The God, who created them, redeemed and sanctified them. God alone has done it all for them because of His great love; there is no synergism here. Since the person has truly died in baptism the moment of death now brings only transition. From this veil of tears and the “valley of the shadow of death” the sinner emerges in the company of the saints and angels. There, in the glory of God, they will be forever.
The blessing continues with the Aaronic benediction. These are the words that God gave to Moses, who charged them to Aaron his brother, to bless the Lord’s people. These are the Lord’s words spoken through the Lord’s priests. In these words God puts His name on the people. He is where His name is, and in that place, there is life and salvation. The Christian is accustomed to hearing these words at the conclusion of the divine service. Blessed by God, and with His peace, the Christian enters the world to confess Him in word and action. As death draws near the blessing is proclaimed. Christ, who is our great High Priest, speaks His blessing and peace through the pastor. In the presence of the Lord, and with His blessing, the Christian departs this life to be with the Lord – justified by grace through faith in the atoning work of Jesus Christ.
In Peace and Love, Pastor Mark