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    Blue Sky

    Announcing Deaths and Resurrections

    Even our grieving can give witness to the eternal.

    By Phoebe Farag Mikhail

    March 30, 2021

    The job of writing the death and funeral announcements at church sometimes falls to me. Families are often too distraught with the death of their loved one and pulled in different directions because of all the other arrangements. My husband, a priest, will usually be with the family, comforting them even as he also grieves the departure of another member of the body of Christ. So I put the announcement together.

    The announcements are simple: a Scripture verse, a photograph of the departed loved one, the names of the beloved’s family members, and information about the condolence and funeral arrangements. Then I share them on social media, and print them out and post them on our church bulletin board. Congregants see them as they walk into the church before they head up to the sanctuary, a reminder of who to pray for, of who is grieving. There the announcements stay until the fortieth day, when we pray a liturgy in memory of the departed.

    The announcements are hard to write. I often shed tears when the photograph is sent to me, a photograph chosen by the family for us to remember their loved one by. I look closely at the eyes, the smiles, the moments of happiness, trying to sear these into my memory.

    Because we do not see the funeral processions, the graves being dug, the tears being shed when our cameras aren’t on, we have trouble bearing witness to it.

    They are hard because they cement the reality. This person has departed from this earth. Here are the people grieving, here is where and when we will pray for the soul and bury the body. When I click print, I tremble. The announcement is complete: it is now time to share the private grief of a few publicly, so that many might also mourn – and pray.

    Despite its difficulty, I take on this task with gratitude. There is a holiness about this job, this work of bearing witness to grief and death, and of helping others to bear witness. The death announcements give a face to the departed and names to those who are grieving.

    Death has been happening all around us as we suffer through the pandemic. Yet, because we do not see the funeral processions, the graves being dug, the tears being shed when our cameras aren’t on, we have trouble bearing witness to it. Every day, we hear about numbers – but they are numbers, hard to conceptualize into persons. To those of us who haven’t lost a loved one to Covid-19, we may experience the pandemic as virtual reality; and even those of us who have, how can we possibly comprehend the sheer scale of the tragedy?

    To understand the enormity of loss is, perhaps, beyond us. It takes a kind of faith.

    To build our faith, we need to get from the virtual to the concrete, from the abstract to the incarnational. We need to build our witness.

    men carry a white casket across a road in a Coptic funeral procession

    Photograph by Dan Marschka / Lancaster Online

    In April 2020, I listened to witnesses of a different sort of event, but one even more difficult to grasp. Every April 2, the Coptic Orthodox Church celebrates the miraculous apparition of the Virgin Mary in the Church of Zeitoun, Cairo, Egypt. To commemorate the day during lockdown, my husband scheduled an online meeting during which he invited all the members of the congregation that had witnessed this miracle between 1968 to 1971 to tell their stories to the younger members who were born after it happened.

    He opened the meeting by sharing images of newspaper clippings from that time, black and white photographs of a Marian apparition that hundreds of thousands in Egypt saw, Muslims and Christians. To the children, the photos seemed eerie.

    Then, the members of the congregation told their stories.

    “I went with my aunt, and we stood there, looking up, worried that she might not appear that night. Then she came. She was beautiful. My aunt exclaimed, “I have seen you oh Virgin, I have seen you!”

    “When she would appear, the people around would start shouting joyfully!”

    “First I saw doves circling the dome of the church. Then there was a bright light, and I saw her, in her light blue dress! She opened her hands and a light came out as if she were blessing the people.”

    We, who had not seen, soaked up the stories. What seemed fearful became joyful. This miracle had happened. Here are the eyewitnesses. St. Mary’s apparition wasn’t just a black and white photograph in a faded newspaper. It took the witness of others we trusted to give it life. It became reality to us in the impassioned words of flesh and blood people we knew who had witnessed it, with their own eyes. We could talk about this with certainty.

    To affirm the Resurrection even as we grieve is also to witness to the miraculous.

    The Gospel itself was spread because of such witnesses: “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – this life was revealed, and we have seen it,” St. John writes in his first epistle (1:1-2). The apostles, in their conviction of this truth of Christ crucified and risen from the dead, announced this to the world, refusing to renounce him even to the point of death. They were that certain that what they had seen and touched was real.

    “Departed in the hope of the Resurrection,” we write, before stating the name of the departed loved one. In a way, every death announcement for a Christian becomes a pronouncement of the Gospel. Because Christ was crucified, buried, and arose, “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the coming age,” as we repeat in the Creed. St. Mary’s miraculous apparition was a taste of that promise of the Resurrection. Her posture in her apparitions is often open-armed and open-handed, beckoning us to her. We could love her son like she did. We could live in this light, too.

    To affirm the Resurrection even as we grieve is also to witness to the miraculous. We avoid grief because it upsets our experience of the world, and we eschew miracles for the same reason. They both beckon us to things we can’t fully understand in this life. They meet us at this hope of eternal life.

    Dedicated to Michael El-Far, departed in the hope of the Resurrection.

    Contributed By portrait of Phoebe Farag Mikhail Phoebe Farag Mikhail

    Phoebe Farag Mikhail is the author of Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church (Paraclete Press) and a Sacred Writes Media Fellow.

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