The Book of Accompaniment is the oldest extant Maronite document which preserves the funeral rites celebrated by the Maronite Church.1,2 Then Msgr. Hector Y. Doueihi, now Emeritus Bishop of the Maronite Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn, explains in the introduction,
“[The title and the concept it contains] indicate that the dead, who have ended their journey in this life, are starting another journey in the life beyond. According to the ancient spiritual vision of the early Syriac Churches, the passage to eternal life is hampered by obstacles and dangers. The departed need special support and guidance on their journey. Thus, the funeral rites are a complex of psalms, hymns, Scripture readings and prayers that ‘accompany’ them on this ‘other’ journey. The texts implore the ‘company’ of the Lord and his mysteries for them, and pray for protection and safety on their journey. The funeral rites, are, therefore, rites of ‘accompaniment’ which are celebrated on the road as one begins the journey to new life.”3
Not only do the departed need special support and guidance on their journey, but the living, who mourn the death of their loved ones and are traveling on the same road of faith, seek a message of hope and consolation as well.4 Jacob of Sarug (ca. 451 – 521), a prolific Syriac Church Father and known as the Flute of the Holy Spirit, provides his readers with such a message. He teaches that it is none other than Jesus Christ who accompanies the deceased and the living on this road traveled by all grudgingly and with fear. The objective of this brief column5 is to share with the reader this powerful insight which Jacob draws from his main source of pastoral, theological, spiritual and poetical insight, i.e., the Bible. Furthermore, this column’s other goal is to encourage the interpretation of the three stations of the Maronite funeral rites, or better yet the three stations of the accompaniment rites, in light of Jacob’s explanation.
There are three stations in the Maronite funeral service.6 In the days before funeral homes, the accompaniment service started at the home of the deceased, i.e., the first station. The body of the loved one is carried in procession out of his house to the Church while psalms and hymns are being sung. At the second station, i.e., the Church, the funeral service is celebrated. This service comprises of Psalms and prayers full of hope, thus easing the pain of the mourners by reminding them that Jesus Christ has defeated death. The whole Church shouts with St. Paul, “Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:45b-55) and with Hosea before him, “Shall I deliver them from the power of Sheol? shall I redeem them from death? Where are your plagues, O death! where is your sting, Sheol!” (Hosea 13:14). After the celebration of the funeral service7, the procession continues with sung Psalms and hymns to the third and last station, the grave.
According to the Gospels, Jesus performed many miracles. The fourth Gospel concludes with the statement, “There are also many other things that Jesus did, but if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written.” (John 21:25). However, the Gospel authors chose to list three resurrection miracles that Jesus had performed: Jairus’s daughter (Mark 5:21-43; Luke 8:40-56; Matthew 9:18-26), the widow’s son (Luke 7:11-17) and Lazarus (John 11:1-44). These three miracles form the basis of Jacob of Sarug’s powerful pastoral insight in which light the three stations of the Maronite accompaniment rites could be interpreted. Jesus is present and acts with loving compassion to the deceased by restoring them to life, and to the living by accompanying them through their sorrow and finally by reuniting them with their loved ones.
The miracle stories of Jairus’ daughter and the Woman with a Hemorrhage are undoubtedly intertwined (Mark 5:21-43; Luke 8:40-56; Matthew 9:18-26). However, my intention is to extract that which relates to the subject at hand, i.e., how Jesus is present in the three station accompaniment service. Jairus comes to Jesus asking him to heal his dying daughter, who was about twelve years old (Luke 8:42). On his way to answer the plea of this official of the synagogue, his journey gets interrupted. Jesus heals the woman with a hemorrhage. Meanwhile, the twelve year old daughter of Jairus dies. A very sad moment in the life of her parents, relatives and friends. How many people in the world suffer such tragedies? Weren’t young lives plucked out not too long ago in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut? How can any mournful parent be consoled at such a moment?
Jairus receives the news, “Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the teacher any longer.” (Luke 8:49b) Like any parent, Jairus’ life was shattered. His only child is no longer. Death, the greatest evil of all evils, had swallowed and devoured her. Who can rescue her? Is Jesus so powerless against death that he should no longer be bothered? (Luke 8:49) These, of course, are words of hopelessness and unbelief. Jesus does not wait for Jairus or any one else to utter a word. He takes the first step in consoling this sorrowful father, “Do not be afraid; just have faith and she will be saved.” (Luke 8:50b) Jesus accompanies this mournful parent to his home where his daughter lies motionless, but not for long. The Ever Flowing and Unceasing Fountain of Life holds the child by the hand and says, “Child, arise! Her breath returned and she immediately arose. He then directed that she should be given something to eat.” (Luke 8:54b-55) Luke tells us, “Her parents were astounded…” (Luke 8:56a)
The second station corresponds to the resurrection miracle that Jesus performed at the gate of the city Nain. (Luke 7:11-17) A man, who had died, was been carried out. He was the only son of a widow. Luke does not tell us that the dead man was being taken to be buried. However, the meaning is implied. Perhaps, Luke does not give his reader this detail because of that which Jesus is about to do.
Death of a loved one is always difficult to bear. However, our hearts ache most when a mother has to bury a child, regardless of its age. It may be a fourteen-month old infant or a forty-eight year old man. The mother’s reaction is always the same. She feels that her life has ceased when the apple of her eye died, and would, in a heart beat, give up not only her life, but also her entire being for anyone who would bring her child back to life. This woman at the gate of Nain is such a woman. She is powerless and the large crowd that accompanies her and her dead son is impotent as well.
The Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful, the Most Loving, the Most Forgiving, the Holy One, the Strong One, the Immortal One saw her and was moved with pity! He acts immediately to console her saying, “Do not weep.” (Luke 7, 13) These simple but powerful words must have immediately soothed her inconsolable heart. The One who created the world by His Word now commands the dead person, “Young man, I tell you, arise!” (Luke 7, 13b) His life-giving word breathes life into a corpus of dust just as He had breathed life into the first lump of dust to create Adam into his image and likeness. (Genesis 1:26a, Genesis 2:7) Jesus restores this young man’s life and reunites him with his mother. (Luke 7: 15)
The last station of the Maronite accompaniment service is at the grave, where the deceased is laid to rest. The grave is, in my opinion, a symbol of absolute separation between the living and dead. However, through the eyes of faith, one plainly sees that Jesus is present there too, for he accompanies the deceased and the living on their most grievous journeys just as he did with Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha (John 11:1-44). Lazarus, Jesus’ friend, was laid to rest in a grave four days before Jesus arrived to his friend’s village, Bethany. John tells us that many came to comfort Mary and Martha. They seem not to have been consoled until Jesus’ arrival. The One who is “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25) is the only One who can console. Jesus accompanies the sisters and the crowd to the grave. There, He faces the grave and cries out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43). What happens next?
“Death in Sheol saw the gates being opened, but he was not worried. The gates were always opening to let people in. Although he had trampled down many strong and just men in the past, no one has ever gone out from his realm… And then our Lord called Lazarus out, and he came forth. Death was absolutely terrified; he did not know what to say or do. He was afraid that the one who called Lazarus out would himself come in after him and lead out all the dead. So death wanted Lazarus to return quickly so that Christ would not enter after him.”8
Lazarus comes out of the grave. Although he was bound from head to toe, he could walk and see for the voice of the “Good Shepherd who will lay down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11, 15) called and guided him out of the realm of the dead.
“The road of death begins in the house, where a person dies, Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter in the house. The crowd saw the light of resurrection dawn with great wonder and were amazed… The middle of the road of death is the procession to the grave. There, Jesus came upon a youth being carried out the city gate. No one asked him to do anything, but he wanted to setup a tower of peace there also. he raised the boy, and again death was made a mockery before the crowd… Death’s road ends in the grave. Jesus had to follow it to the end; Lazarus was in the grave, corrupting in Sheol. Jesus knocked on death’s door. Death, his crown on his head, was sitting as king on his throne set over a pile of skeletons. The voice of life knocked off his crown and over his throne. Death could not hold the dead man back… Lazarus was called by name because Christ wanted only him. It was not yet time for all the dead to rise. He kicked Sheol and made it vomit up some of its food… The dead man rose up, and death fell down. Here at the end of the road, even in the grave, our Lord set up a lodging of peace…”9
The three stations of the Maronite accompaniment service could be seen in light of these three resurrection stories. Jesus is present at home (Jairus’ daughter – the first station). He accompanies the mourners in procession through the church (the widow’s son – the second station) and awaits them at the grave (Lazarus in the grave – the third station). Just as he consoled the hearts of Jairus and his wife, the widow who lost her son, and Mary and Martha, so too he consoles our hearts when they are stricken by similar tragedies, no matter how awful these tragedies may be. His consolation is not just empty words. On the contrary, Christ’s Word gives life. The twelve year old girl, the young man, and Lazarus were restored to life when they heard the Word who chose to create and redeem. “At the second coming, at the end of the world, when the Son comes again, he will call the dead and raise them in the twinkling of an eye. Here [John 11:1-44] he wanted to show how he would call them and lead them out of Sheol.”10
“saw that the road to the grave was being travelled without hope; so he filled it with lodgings of great hope… He measured that road and placed on it milestones of peace and encouragement so men can travel it without fear…The whole road of death is now filled with life and hope. At the start of the road, Christ raised the girl and gave her to her father; in the middle, he raised the boy and gave him to his mother; at the end, he raised Lazarus and gave him to his sisters… At each milestone along the road, he transformed grief and mourning, turning them to rejoicing. All along the road he was confessed and praised because he had made peace (ܫܰܝܶܢ) along the whole road so that it can now be travelled without fear.”11
1 Book of Ginnazat, Order of Christian Funerals According to the Rites of the Maronite Antiochene Church, Diocese of Saint Maron, USA, office of Liturgy, San Antonio, Texas 1988, 8. To download a pdf copy of this text go to https://maroniten.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/maronite-funeral-rites.pdf
2 The noun “accompaniment” is obviously derived from the verb to accompany. It should be understood from its verbal root to mean: “to go along or in company with, join in action: To accompany a friend on a walk.” This explanatory endnote is needed because when one looks up the word “accompaniment” in a modern dictionary, one finds the following two definitions: “1. something incidental or added for ornament, symmetry, etc. and 2. Music. a part in a composition designed to serve as background and support for more important parts.” Neither conveys the meaning of a person accompanying another. Perhaps a better English word should be chosen. However, this is not the task at hand. Therefore, I will stick to the word “accompaniment” that Doueihi had chosen to use.
3 Book of Ginnazat 8.
4 Book of Ginnazat 1.
5 I based this column on a section of a dissertation (pages 78-85) written in 1972 by Michael Damon Guinan, O.F.M. and entitled “The Eschatology of James of Sarug.” Guinan does not discuss the Maronite funeral service and/or its stages and does not insinuate that there is a connection between it and the thoughts of Jacob of Sarug. I am encouraging an interpretation of the three stages based on Guinan’s explanation of Jacob of Sarug.
6 I am not certain how many Maronites in the United States are aware of this service. To read it, one may go to https://maroniten.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/maronite-funeral-rites.pdf to download a pdf copy in English.
7 This is not the common practice of celebrating the so called Funeral Liturgy. The Divine Liturgy is celebrated three days after the funeral service to “relive” and be reminded of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
8 Michael Damon Guinan, The Eschatology of James of Sarug, Dissertation, Washington, D.C. 1972, 84 a.
9 ibid 86-87.
10 ibid 85.
11 ibid 86-87