Saturday, January 29, 2011

In Christ, "Taps" is not the Final Trumpet

Today a loving family, the Holy Christian Church, the United States Army, and a grateful nation laid Private First Class Rob Roy Certain to rest who passed away at the age of 83. I had the profound privilege of folding the American Flag for his funeral as part of the Military Funeral Honor Guard which Mr. Certain had purchased decades ago through blood and sweat during the Korean War. He was a combat veteran and, based on the medals displayed at his funeral, a three time Bronze Star recipient.

In my short Army career thus far, I have probably conducted 60-70 such funerals. While individual military honors funerals vary greatly on many peripheral matters, there are three things that are constant: The ceremonial folding of an American Flag, the presentation of that flag to a surviving loved one, and--before those things--there is the playing of a short horn piece known nearly to the whole nation as "Taps".

As with most military customs, it is not entirely clear how this piece came to be played at funerals though most apocryphal accounts place its use in funerals during Civil War at the latest. Regardless of it's origins, "Taps" is played at military funerals. This event with this song has been played thousands of times at actual funerals and has been immortalized in so many film recreations of the ceremony that the American psyche cannot help but equate "Taps" with "Death".

This connection between "Taps" and "Death" is so strong in the collective memory of American citizens, that the start of "Taps" is usually when the sobbing and wails of mourners greatly increase in volume and intensity. They have held their composure for the entire service in relative silence with little more than red eyes and a few silent tears... ...but, simply at the first few notes of this horn, the entire audience tends to break down. It is as though this music piece firmly declares to all who hear it "Yes, they really are dead." It is an iconic message that is almost universal in its impact across the nation. Next time you are at a military funeral, pay attention and you'll notice it, too.

But "Taps" is not just the "He's dead, Jim" funeral music as most civilians know it. Military personnel know all to well what its true meaning is because, when living on a military base, they hear it played late into the night... each and every night... like clockwork. Why? Because it is clockwork. In the days before the point where every soldier in camp had reliable watches, radios, alarm clocks, and email, a whole slew of bugle calls were created as part of the larger set of trumpeted commands to broadcast across the entire base what time it is, what is going on, where people should go, and what people should be doing. Where a runner could deliver a message to a few through great effort, a bugler could almost effortlessly deliver a message instantly to the ears of the whole camp. It is just part of a much greater tradition of sounding trumpets to signal messages to masses of people... dating all the way back to all ancient civilizations.

While civilians equate "Taps" with "Death", military personnel know that "Taps" actually means "Lights Out" or "Time to Sleep". That's when it's played and that's what it is for. It's time to sleep. On a military base, you hear taps play across the parade grounds and you know what time it is: It's time to hit the rack. It's that simple; almost mundane in its function. It's use at funerals is secondary to this original purpose and pours out of this utilitarian meaning. "Lights Out".

What a fantastic Christian metaphor! That is what death is for those who die in the faith: a time of sleep and waiting for a new dawn. A trooper in a camp here's "Taps" with relief knowing that the day's work is done and that a new day will break with the sounding of the opposite twin for "Taps". Where "Taps" signals the night, the call of sunrise is known as "Reveille" which is a French word that literally means "Wake Up".

The "Taps" at night is always answered by the new day's "Reveille". And for those who die in the faith of Jesus Christ, their peaceful slumber will be ended at the anouncement of a blessed new day. After the long night, there will be a sounding of a magnificent heavenly trumpet that will loudly declare to the entire world that the new dawn of the Second Coming of Christ is at hand!

"I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

"Death is swallowed up in victory."

"O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?"

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain."

-1 Corinthians 15:50-58

So when you are at a military funeral for your Christian brother or sister, contemplate the true meaning of "Taps" and let the music remind you of what I have pointed out here... and the words of Christ:

"The child is not dead but asleep." [Mark 5:39]

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