Funerals for Bush pulled heaven into America's public square
(COMMENTARY) During 60 years of friendship, George H.W. Bush went on countless trips with James Baker III, his secretary of state and a confidant so close that America's 41st president liked to call him his "little brother."
On the last day of Bush's life, Baker checked on his friend. The result was an exchange Baker shared several times, including on CNN's "State of the Union."
"Hey, Bake, where are we going today?", asked Bush, alert after days of struggle.
"Well, Jefe, we're going to heaven," Baker replied.
"Good. That's where I want to go," said Bush.
Bush died about 12 hours later, surrounded by family and friends, including his pastor, the Rev. Russell J. Levenson Jr. It was a time for prayers and good-byes, and the priest shared some details in sermons during both the state funeral in Washington, D.C., and the final rites at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Houston, the Bush family's home parish for 50 years.
"It was a beautiful end. It was a beautiful beginning. … The president so loved his church – he loved the Episcopal Church. He so loved our great nation. He so loved you, his friends. He so loved every member of his family," said Levenson, at Washington National Cathedral.
"But he was so ready to go to heaven. … My hunch is heaven, as perfect as it must be, just got a bit kinder and gentler." The priest turned and addressed the coffin, blending faith with language from Bush's days as a Navy pilot: "Mr. President, mission complete. Well done, good and faithful servant. Welcome to your eternal home, where ceiling and visibility are unlimited and life goes on forever."
There is nothing unusual about priests discussing heaven during funerals. After all, the Pew Research Center's massive "religious landscape" study a few years ago indicated that 72 percent of Americans believe in a place "where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded," and the number is 82 percent for those affiliated with a religious tradition.
But the funeral rites for the 94-year-old Bush – build around scriptures, music and prayers he helped select – were packed with references to Christian faith and believe in life after death, using explicit religious language rarely heard in public life today. There were visions of heaven in classic anthems and hymns sung by great choirs, as well as the Oak Ridge Boys.
During the state funeral, for example, granddaughter Jenna Bush Hager read from Revelation, chapter 21: "Then I saw a new heaven and a new Earth, for the first heaven and the first Earth had passed away. … And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared, as a bride adorned for her husband. … God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more."
The Beltway service, of course, offered political intrigue – with President Donald Trump sharing a tense pew with all of America's surviving presidents and first ladies. And the eulogies in both rites contained family stories, church stories, fishing stories and war stories. There were memories of politics, baseball, the 41st president's struggles with grammar, imaginary adventures with grandchildren, a vodka-and-steak dinner smuggled into a hospital room and decades of tears and prayers after the loss of a 3-year-old daughter.
Fighting with his emotions, President George W. Bush ended his eulogy with images of a heavenly reunion: "In our grief, let us smile knowing that Dad is hugging Robin and holding mom's hand again."
This was a topic, Levenson said, that he had discussed with his parishioner during the last years of his life, which included several close calls with death.
During a visit several years ago, a stricken Bush opened up.
"At the time, he didn't know how that struggle would end," said the priest, preaching in Houston. "He put a question to me about as simply as anybody could. He said, 'What do you think heaven is like?'
"It was a confident statement. … He didn't want to know if there was a heaven or whether he would be there when the end came. He said he just wanted to know what it was be like. He was ready for heaven and heaven was ready for him."