Since we’re reading along with the Thessalonians of yore in our Sunday Lectionary even today, let’s have a look at one of the selections from that letter approved for funeral use:
We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters,
about those who have fallen asleep,
so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope.
For if we believe that Jesus died and rose,
so too will God, through Jesus,
bring with him those who have fallen asleep.
Indeed, we tell you this, on the word of the Lord,
that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord,
will surely not precede those who have fallen asleep.
For the Lord himself, with a word of command,
with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God,
will come down from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.
Then we who are alive, who are left,
will be caught up together with them in the clouds
to meet the Lord in the air.
Thus we shall always be with the Lord.
Therefore, console one another with these words.
Christian grief is tempered by the reality of the Paschal Mystery. Christ has gone before us. Christ will not abandon his sisters and brothers to the unknowns of death and what lies beyond the grave.
The apostle frames this very carefully in the context of his letter. Death is a tender subject. Paul introduces it with a rhetorical aside, and concludes it with a hopeful exhortation. Inside the brackets, Paul doesn’t dismiss grief as a natural response to a loved one’s death. But he does insist our feelings of loss are tempered by the hope we cultivate as believers.
The particular imagery: trumpets, angels, and clouds are all associated with apocalyptic literature of the time. These details are less important (enjoying the fruits of heaven living in the clouds) than the fact of meeting the Lord.
This is a fairly common selection for the funeral rites. And a good one, if one can get past the apostle’s rhetoric and the imagery to the core message of hope. This reading is a good pairing with John 14. We don’t know the actual details of eternal life (a mansion in the clouds?) but I think mourners are indeed comforted with the notion thayt relationships will continue after we live our lives. Really, isn’t the setting secondary?