Advent’s Four Last Things: DEATH


DEATH

In the New Testament, resurrection is key. Its light transforms all the life described there, placing all things under its spotlight, and revealing the extent of God’s love for us.

Without shadows, it is hard to see death in its full harshness. It’s there, of course: the young man at Nain, Lazarus, Jairus’ daughter, are all stone-cold dead. Lazarus has been dead for so many days that there’s a stench. Jairus has brought in the professional mourners. The townsfolk of Nain are already wondering what will happen to the bereaved widow without a man to belong to. (Luke 7:11, John 11:39, Mark 5:38.)

The New Testament depicts death as final and irreversible. Lazarus is not sleeping. Jesus told the disciples plainly, “Lazarus has died.”’ (John 11:14)

A humorous old spiritual, The Deacon Went Down to the Cellar to Pray, has a chorus which claims ‘You can’t get to heaven on roller-skates, You’ll go right past them pearly gates.” Underneath the humour there’s a serious point: If you fail to take death seriously enough, you’ll miss out on the resurrection.

Despite popular culture’s love-affair with murders, we are reluctant to talk seriously about death. Our unexamined fear of death makes Western society especially vulnerable to, say, Al-Qaeda’s acts of terror.

At Christmas-time when absence scratches at people’s wound of loss, our unfamiliarity with death prevents us from providing comfort and community to the bereaved.

Death has the last word. We are the stronger for facing its power. Classics like Bishop Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Dying admonish Christians to face death full on as a powerful way of growing spiritually.  It’s not good enough to say that we will be raised with Christ. First, we die. We must experience the reality of death: no-one escapes it.

Eugène Ionesco’s play, Exit the King, is a powerful meditation on death. The King comes to realise that the whole world dies when he dies. Trees, people, stars, the universe, all disappear with me, me! he complains. Each death is indeed an appalling loss. Each individual is of cosmic worth, and her or his unique talents and personality are plundered from the world at death. All ceases to exist when we die.

As Christians, we shout, ‘Death may have the last word, but God has the last last word!’ God reached into the tomb where Lazarus’ earthly remains were starting to rot, and brought him back to the world of the living.  Jesus himself was dead and buried: gone from existence. Yet God called Jesus back into existence so triumphantly that the raising of Jesus is a guarantee that, if we stick with him, we too will be called back into life (I Thessalonians 4:14), a life that is even more glorious than this life.

Believing in resurrection is not enough. It’s like being sure that Houdini will escape from the water-tank. Of course, he will: that’s the nature of illusions. But our dying is real, not an illusion. Jesus, like us, was born to die, and it is only in the spiritually-bracing acceptance of death, death as final act, that we can open to the possibility of being raised from the dead.

Our response can only be ‘Alleluia’.

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Raising of Lazarus, Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519 (Wikipedia)

Advent’s Four Last Things: HEAVEN II


A young mother, grieving for the death of a baby, asks the question, ‘Will I be reunited with my Olivia in heaven?’

An elderly widower expresses certainty that he will be with his bride in heaven.

It’s almost as though Christian faith depends on after-death reunions of loved ones. The guidance, however, that Scripture gives us on this is vague and contradictory.

So, the totally honest answer to this question, especially as no-one has returned to tell us, is that we don’t know. But when faced with the direct question, ‘Will we be reunited in heaven?’, I hesitate.

Of course, the temptation for us pastors is to give the easy answer, the answer that people want to hear. The reality, however, is that we understand so little about life after death: what does time mean in life and after we die? What does resurrection mean for us as individuals? Will there be a different experience for those who do not identify as Christians? How will we connect with those from whom we have been estranged in this life? Cynical Sadducees asked Jesus a similar question, ‘In the resurrection, whose wife will she be?’ (Matthew 22:28)

Many people believe firmly that the church teaches that we, as individuals, will be united after death with loved ones. Many clergy taking funerals, without directly endorsing this view, allow it to stand as an implication of their pastoral message. I understand this prevarication: we are motivated to tell good news. I am deeply uncomfortable, however, with its dishonesty. This teaching falls short. There is better news.

The idea that we will be united with loved ones after death springs from a good place: it is an idea that the best God has given us in this life is love, and the one thing that we should expect from the eternal God is ongoing love.

In this life, we love with our bodies: we make love with our spouse with our body; we are present in the body to our friends. When we are absent from our loved ones, we project our bodies through space to continue the contact – our image on FaceTime, our voice on the telephone, our hand-writing in a card. These symbols of our body tell our loved one that we yearn to be present in the body.

Death destroys the body. Dust we are, and to dust we return (v. Genesis 3:19). The body is then transformed in resurrection. We know almost nothing about what Saint Paul calls the ‘resurrection body’, only that we would be a ‘foolish person’ to imagine it to be the same as our current body. It is as different from the natural body as the wheat plant is from a grain (I Corinthians 15:36-37)!

Love, after death, will also be the same and categorically different. While our bodies can love gloriously, God promises a love after death that is different in degree and in expression:  a much better love. All bodily limitations to love will be removed and transformed. Who knows whether we will rise as individuals, or as love promises, somehow joined in love? Or something entirely different, and, as yet, unimagined?

My plea is that we settle for more than the idea that we will be reunited with loved ones, and that we take the Bible at its word (I Corinthians 2:9, quoting Isaiah 64:4), that God will exceed our imagination as to how wonderful love in the resurrection will be. It will be heaven!

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Burial at Sea


Burial at Sea

She went on the boat, the toddler Aliya,
an act of love and desperation,
beginning the middle passage of risk and fear,
from war-torn country to wealthy free nation.

They stand in a ring and pray,
the parents, the uncles, the old friends,
they squeeze tight to produce the way
for Aliya to fight through to good ends.

They thought it was better, this boat,
not crowded, not corrupted, not bad,
safely able to cross Europe’s wide moat,
Thus farewells were confident and sad.

Aliya was soon alone, pushed into the hold
of a forty-foot boat with ninety aboard,
the hull, the frame, the motor all old,
no food, no toilet, naught aboveboard.

All around the headache-making stench
of dieseline and human waste and sick,
men groan, women cry, Aliya can clench
her eyes against foul air so thick.

This the middle passage – you must know now
that migrants and crew have been jettisoned.
Peristaltic waves rock Aliya, bitter winds blow,
Motor falters, death has been commissioned.

Little Aliya is quiet. No food for three whole days,
She slips away, a pilgrim to paradise,
her middle passage a satanic maze
She comes to its end a tiny sacrifice.

It’s rough. There’s no one close to grieve.
She’s shrouded. Prayers are said. Blessing and peace
and the Prophet’s words give leave
to the little corpse as it slides beneath the seas.

While in Beirut or Bath they count their US dollars.

  • Ted Witham 2016

 

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Photo courtesy Mirror.co.uk

 

Dying and Rising – Sermon for St Francistide


Galatians 6:16-18

In the name of the One who died and has risen – Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Saint Paul boasts that on his body he bore the marks of Christ. In the Greek, he speaks of the stigmata of Christ. The idea is that somehow the marks made by the nails and the spear when Jesus died were on Paul’s body.  He doesn’t describe these marks, these death marks, in any detail, but it was the only thing he allowed himself to boast about. ‘Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast / save in the death of Christ my God,’ to use Isaac Watts’ wonderful words.

I assume that the reason St Paul does not describe these marks in any more detail is that he does not want us to spend our time speculating about what they were like. What he wants us to pay attention to is the death of Christ – where the marks came from.

1300 years later in central Italy, Francis of Assisi was praying and fasting on lonely and wild Mt Alverna. Brother Leo was bringing him water and food and checking on Francis daily, but apart from that he was as alone with God as he could be. He was praying that he could be as like Jesus as possible. He had probably fasted too long and been on his own too long, but on one day he had a vision of Jesus on the cross. There seemed to be light coming from the wounds of Christ’s wrists and feet and side, and they seemed to come right into the body of Francis.

When the vision was gone, St Francis had on his body open wounds which never healed; on his hands and feet and side. He was embarrassed by these wounds and kept them covered. During his lifetime only Leo and the other two or three others that nursed him when he was ill had any idea about these stigmata. On the night Francis died, he asked to be laid naked on the bare earth in his beloved Portiuncula, down the hill from Assisi. Then, and only then, quite a number of Brothers saw wounds.

I’m not sure whether I am completely convinced of the literal truth of the stigmata of St Francis; I am perhaps about 80% sure. There is certainly no requirement of anyone to believe in them. To get hung up on whether they were true or not, or exactly what form they took, is to miss the point. Like Saint Paul, St Francis bore on his body the marks of Christ. Being personally marked by the death of Christ – that’s the point.

St Paul and St Francis believed they were personally marked by the death of Christ because they were baptised: ‘Do you not know,’ Paul asks the Christians in Rome, ‘that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death?’ (Romans 6:3)

‘All of us’ includes you and me. We were baptised into his death. Archbishop Rowan Williams uses the word ‘swamped’. As Christians, we are swamped by the death of Jesus. That’s why we come into a church-building dominated by a font – where we were drowned – and a cross, where Jesus died. To be a Christian is to be overwhelmed by the death of Jesus.

Our death; and the death of Christ. The two come together in Christian faith to bring life.

Most of us are in the third third of our lives; closer to our death than to our birth. Being a Christian is about being personally marked with death. The death of Jesus, and the experience of St Paul and of St Francis urge us to reflect on our own death. While that may sound morbid, I believe that reflecting on our death actually leads us to life, to deeper life in Christ.

What does it mean to be personally and individually marked with death? For one thing, it means that our psyches, our souls, if you like, have the scars from the particular bereavements we have suffered, the marks from the struggles we have had when death has come to visit us closely. How we deal with the death of loved ones makes a difference. How we allow the grace of God to open us to new growth, to new life, when we suffer the loss of those who are dear shapes us to be the people we are. It matters how we respond to death.

And we get more practice the older we get. It’s not our grandparents who are dying now. It is our parents, and sisters and brothers, and spouses, and lifelong friends. It is easy to build a tough shell and hide from Sister Death, but that way, though it might be easy, leads to us shrivelling up. Let us resolve not to become hard and cynical, but to value deeply the love of each as they pass.

Our bereavements as we grow older can lead us into a deeper experience of the love of God as we open ourselves to all the love given and received in our friends and lovers, living and gone before us.

Secondly, in this third third of life, we are marked with the experience of our own dying. Thankfully, we don’t know exactly what that will be. It may well be that we will die in our sleep, and not be aware of the actually moment of dying.

There used to be many books called something like ‘The Art of Holy Living and Holy Dying’.  How we die matters to God and to us. I have a home communion set given to me by Fr John Wardman as a gift when he was dying. It was wonderful to spend time with that priest in the weeks before he died, as he recollected himself before God, and as he reaffirmed how he believed that his being in God was permanent. He radiated a peace and stillness that was appropriate for him. He died well.

The challenge for me is, What will it mean for me to die well? What outstanding matters of loving relationship must I attend to?  How should I deepen my relationship with God? Do I identify any fears within myself about dying?

Sometimes, when I worked as a parish priest, people would ask me not to visit their relative in hospital. ‘They’ll associate you with dying,’ they would explain. And it’s true. A couple of times I wasn’t warned and people were quite angry with me for visiting someone. I suspect that they were angry because they, the relatives, didn’t want to think about death and dying, and they knew that it is part of a priest’s job to raise the subject.

It’s never too early, really, to start thinking about how our lives are marked with death; how we are to identify with Christ in his death. We live such sheltered lives here in Busselton. We don’t have to face Ebola outbreaks or the massacres of religious fanatics. But maybe we can take a lesson from Ebola and ISIS: many people on the planet face death on a daily basis.

The more urgently we face our coming dying the more we can thank God for each day we live. Each day now is a wonderful gift, even if it is marked with sickness and pain, or if it is spoiled with disappointments in love. One of the things I have learned with a body that doesn’t always work well is how wonderfully it does work.  Our prayer is thank you. We come to this church to make Eucharist. Evcharisto, simply the Greek word for ‘Thank you, God.’

The more we look at death in the face, the more we see it as not a full stop, but more like a bus stop. It’s a staging point. We may not understand what comes after, but we believe with full hearts that we are marked not just with the death of Christ, but also with his resurrection. ‘If we have died with Him, we believe we shall also live with Him.’ St Paul again. (Romans 6:8)

All that love – the love of brothers and sisters; the love of parents, the love of spouse, the love of childhood friends – is not lost. Somehow we know that we will find those loves again after death. St Paul tells us, and it’s one of my favourite verses, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart imagined, God has prepared for those who love him.’ (I Corinthians 2:9)  In other words, for what happens after death, we imagine the best possible outcomes, and God makes sure that it will be better, far better, than we can imagine.

So for the future, when we look death in the face, the death which marks us in a personal and individual way, as Christians we are filled joyful anticipation. To bear in our bodies the marks of the death of Christ is no bad thing. It leads to the fullness of life.

Suffering unto death?


The comment was only half in jest, and it caught me by surprise. “You sound disappointed that you weren’t diagnosed with bone cancer or blood cancer.” My answer was the sanctioned one: “I am disappointed that they haven’t found something that they can treat. I don’t really care what its name is.”

The truth is, there is a little part of me that felt disappointed when the scans and blood tests returned negative. Of course, that’s partly explained not as a death wish, but as frustration with my symptoms, which have been powerful enough on some days for me to think that death would be easier to bear than the pain.

But my friend made me wonder. During those days of waiting for results I did rehearse my reactions to the possible diagnosis of a fatal illness. The prospect that I would not have more years with Rae filled me with pain. The thought that, though I might live to see Clare’s wedding, I might not see the children she will have with James and watch them as babies, toddlers, children, adolescents and growing to adulthood, seared my heart. The idea that I would not be around long enough to see Brendan settled and happy troubled me deeply.

No, I am not disappointed. I want the chance of more life. But I hope I am also strong enough to face my mortality, and to wonder what that now means to me as a Christian. These last weeks have reaffirmed for me the stark fact that I will die, if not soon, then in the coming decade or two. And whatever I believe, I cannot escape the reality of nature: death is the end. We live, we die. Anything that might be beyond our life span would be a sheer miraculous gift of the Most High. Resurrection is by definition surprise.

It is many years since I believed (if ever I really did) in my continuing existence after death as an individual. I hope I have not given false comfort to people over the years that they will somehow be reunited beyond the ashes or the grave with their loved ones in some happy valley. This false but widespread belief is both arrogant and petty: Arrogant to believe that human beings are so important in the scheme of the Cosmos, and petty to think so poorly of God’s imagination.

By definition, “eternal” cannot be after anything. The word itself tells us that the grace of God operates not after our death, but beyond our life – out of time. As far as we can know now, eternal life is about the intensity with which we live in this too short space between birth and death. Eternal life is about our gratitude now. Eternal life is about intentionally taking time to be simply in the Presence of all that is.

Looking forward to some second-rate paradise after death will in fact take away from the joy and brilliance of living in the now.

Instead, we should be journeying within to discover the broad and marvel-filled country of our souls. Instead of yearning for a union with those whom we love in the past, we could be yearning for a greater quality of loving those we are given to love now.

I am not afraid of the darkness to come. The problem is that sometimes I am afraid of the brightness of the light here and now.

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