The Committal was a family affair, held in a small, but very lovely, family cemetery. There were, perhaps, twenty people there including the three priests who were honored to commit our brother’s body to the earth and to the Lord’s keeping. Having completed the opening anthems, I stepped to the grave to bless the ground in which the body of this saint of God would be laid to rest. And, I prayed:
O God, whose blessed Son was laid in a tomb in the garden: Bless, we pray, this grave, set apart for the repose of your servant, that he whose body is buried here may rest from his labors in peace and quietness, until the resurrection on the last day, when the New Jerusalem comes down, the dead are raised, and the righteous are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen (BCP 2019, p. 261).
I have prayed this prayer before, blessed graves before; but for some reason, this prayer on this day demanded my attention and has garnered my thought since. What, exactly, is a priest doing when he blesses a grave? What did I think then, and what do I think now, that I was doing?
Based on the prayer itself, we are setting apart the grave as a place of repose for a servant of God. We are announcing to both worlds — seen and unseen — that this is hallowed ground and should be respected as such; the ground should be undisturbed so that the one who reposes there may do so in peace and quietness until the resurrection. If the ground has not been previously blessed, this prayer is, in effect, a minor exorcism of place, a specific instance of St. Anthony’s lesser exorcism:
Alleluia! Behold the cross of the Lord.
Begone, all evil powers.
The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David has conquered.
The blessing of a grave is not different in kind from the blessing of a house or the blessing of place in the service of Compline:
Visit this place, O Lord, and drive far from it all snares of the enemy; let your holy angels dwell with us to preserve us in peace; and let your blessing be upon us always; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen (BCP 2019, p. 63).
In fact, with minor changes, the two prayers are essentially interchangeable. At a grave side, a priest might just as well pray:
Visit this ground, O Lord, and drive far from it all snares of the enemy; let your holy angels dwell here to preserve this holy ground and the one who reposes in it in peace; and let your blessing be upon him/her always; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Of all this, I am fairly certain, because it follows directly from the Book of Common Prayer, our Anglican tradition, and Scripture. About what follows, I am less certain. I would not teach it as public faith, but I gladly hold it as private piety.
The Great Tradition of the Church and the experience of the saints bears witness to guardian angels: that each of us — either at birth or at baptism — is graced with an angel to minister to us, to direct us toward salvation, to protect and defend us along the way. I have no reason to doubt that and every reason to believe it.
Collect of Holy Michael and All Angels (BCP 2019, p. 632)
Everlasting God, you have ordained and constituted in a wonderful order the ministries of angels and mortals: Mercifully grant that, as your holy angels always serve and worship you in heaven, so by your appointment they may help and defend us here on earth (emphasis added); through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The spirit of my brother who recently fell asleep in the Lord no longer needs the help and defense of his guardian angel; his spirit is with the Lord, beyond all snares of the enemy or troubles of this mortal life. But his body? That reposes in the earth which is still the domain of spiritual warfare. Might it be — and this is speculative theology, at best! — that at the blessing of the grave, the saint’s guardian angel takes his stand there, defending the saint’s body from all spiritual desecration by the evil one, in whatever form that might take? There is this cryptic passage in Jude, after all:
Jude 9 (ESV): 9 But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you.”
I would not want to make too much of this; nor would I wish to neglect it.
Simply as a matter of personal piety, it comforts me to think that when the family departs the cemetery the saint’s body is not left alone, but rather remains in the care of the angel who watched over him throughout his life and ushered his spirit safely home. It is an image I can’t quite shake and don’t want to do: an angel standing by the grave — vigilant and awe-full — watching over the saint and worshiping God until the last great day, until the final trumpet, until the dead in Christ arise, until this body of this saint rises.