Scripture scholars think there are ancient Christian hymns quoted, embedded, or otherwise utilized in the texts of the New Testament. One is in 2 Timothy’s contribution to the funeral Lectionary:
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead,
a descendant of David:
such is my gospel, for which I am suffering,
even to the point of chains, like a criminal.
But the word of God is not chained.
Therefore, I bear with everything
for the sake of those who are chosen,
so that they too may obtain the salvation
that is in Christ Jesus,
together with eternal glory.
This saying is trustworthy:
If we have died with him we shall also live with him;
if we persevere we shall also reign with him.
But if we deny him he will deny us.
If we are unfaithful he remains faithful,
for he cannot deny himself.
I’ve highlighted in color passages that Saint Paul possibly “lifted” from other sources of his day. The Scripture scholar Benjamin Fiore, SJ, suggests that this passage begins with a quote (in blue, above) from a baptismal hymn or a very early creed. When believers are beset by trials, often they turn (or return) to what they know. The tried-and-true. And what is more foundational than an expression of faith? The dark green passage is more widely noted as a possible baptismal hymn. We can’t really tell, and for the modern Christian, I doubt it matters. What is important here is that Paul demonstrates a sound and acceptable practice: when we are suffering or in pain, we bring that experience to God, we embed our own experience in the context of prayers tried-and-true.
Modern Christians, too, find great solace in the familiar words of much-loved hymns and songs. Like the apostle, we place our pain and sorrows in the very music we sing. There may be few better examples to handle grief and separation than the apostle Paul. And as we do bear these trials, we keep in mind others who have suffered–sometimes more painfully than ourselves. And we rejoice that these sisters and brothers are released from their suffering to be with the Lord.
When might this passage be chosen for a funeral? It certainly speaks to the situation of mourners. It also touches on the nature of temptation and trial that a Christian must suffer. Was the deceased one of these? If so, we can ground our hope in the faith of our departed loved one, and look to our own faith for solace. And there are few better ways to do this, when beset by loss, than to reach out for what has sustained us in the past. Music, especially, has the power to do this. And while we have lost the musical strains of these quotations of Saint Paul, we still have the music of today and of our Christian heritage to draw on for strength and firmness.
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