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Sunday Before Advent: Death

Christ the King
20 November 2005
Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24; Matthew 25: 31 - 46; Psalm 95, verses 1-7 (the Venite)
I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live John 11.25

Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily, said La Rochefoucauld . But sometimes we have to screw up our eyes, square our shoulders, and make the attempt. For our own sakes, we need to challenge Death, as Oliver St. John Gogarty reminds us:

But for your terror where would be valour?
What is love for but to stand in your way?
Taker and Giver, for all your endeavour,
You leave us with more than you touch with decay.

Love is perhaps the best answer to death. Our need for love and friendship, and the memories of our family and friends, will outlast their deaths, as the ancients knew:

In whatever direction you turn, friendship still remains yours. No barrier can shut it out. It can never be untimely: it can never be in the way. We need friendship all the time, just as much as we need the necessities of life. It is unique because of the bright rays of hope it projects into the future: it never allows the spirit to falter or fall. When a man thinks of a true friend, he is looking at himself in the mirror. Even when a friend is absent, he is present all the same. However poor he is, he is rich: however weak, he is strong. Even when he is dead he is alive. He is alive because his friends still cherish him. And remember him. And long for him. This means that there is happiness even in his death - he ennobles the existence of those who are left behind.
'On Friendship' by Marcus Tullius Cicero

Of course, there is no harm in telling those we love how much we appreciate them in the here and now, rather than giving them the memorial service to end all memorial services:

If with pleasure you are viewing any work a man is doing,
If you like him or you love him, tell him now.
Do not wait till life is over, when he's underneath the clover
It'll be too late by then to let him know

After a poem by Berton Braley

One of the most difficult aspects of grief is that everyone else is busy with the mundane details of daily life, which suddenly seem so banal to the bereaved, as W H Auden described:

About suffering they were never wrong
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating, or opening
A window, or just walking dully along.
'Musée des Beaux Arts'

The Christian is sustained by his faith, his ability to trust in God's promise:

We can know God in the same way a man can see a limitless ocean when he is standing by the shore with a candle during the night. Do you think he can see very much? Nothing much, scarcely anything. And yet, he can see the water well, he knows that in front of him is the ocean and that this ocean is enormous and that he cannot contain it all in his gaze. So it is with our knowledge of God.
St Symeon the New Theologian

But what then is the hereafter? What the caterpillar perceives as the end, to the butterfly is just the beginning (Anon). For Bunyan's ' Mr Valiant-for-Truth' all the Trumpets sounded...on the other side, but Charles Causley visualises something altogether more homely:

They are waiting for me somewhere beyond Eden Rock:
My father, twenty-five, in the same suit...
My mother, twenty-three, in a sprigged dress
They beckon to me from the other bank.
I hear them call. 'See, where the stream-path is!
Crossing is not as hard as you might think.'
I had not thought that it would be like this.
'Eden Rock' 1

You probably remember C S Lewis's Narnia Chronicles? This is how 'The Last Battle' ends:

'Have you not guessed?...there was a real railway accident', said Aslan softly. 'You...are all, as you used to call it in the Shadowlands, dead. The term is over; the holidays have begun. The dream is ended; this is the morning.' And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page. Now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read, which goes on forever, and in which every chapter is better than the one before.

'Margaritae Sorori', by William Ernest Henley, author of Invictus

A late lark twitters from the quiet skies:
And from the west,
Where the sun, his day's work ended,
Lingers as in content,
There falls on the old, gray city
An influence luminous and serene,
A shining peace.

The smoke ascends
In a rosy-and-golden haze. The spires
Shine and are changed. In the valley
Shadows rise. The lark sings on. The sun,
Closing his benediction,
Sinks, and the darkening air
Thrills with a sense of the triumphing night--
Night with her train of stars
And her great gift of sleep.

So be my passing!
My task accomplish'd and the long day done,
My wages taken, and in my heart
Some late lark singing,
Let me be gather'd to the quiet west,
The sundown splendid and serene,

At a service in St Paul's to commemmorate those who died in the July 2005 London bombings, the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke most movingly, touching on many of the ideas sketched above, in a sermon that in itself deserves to be remembered:

Time gives perspective and may bring healing; but the death of someone we love makes a difference that nothing will ever completely unmake…We know there really is a tomorrow; religious believers are confident that there is a 'last awakening' to the face of God...Those we have lost are alive in and with God; but there is a sense in which they are alive in us too. Their unique existence has made us more profoundly who we ourselves are; and what they have given us by being themselves is part of the resources we now have to cope with the tragedy of their loss... as we slowly begin the long and hard task of returning to a life without someone we love, this doesn't mean that we forget them or that our love is less - it is that this is part of how they live in us and how their love for us continues... First and most simply, we celebrate those we love, in their separate, unique beauty, who remain with us and in us, and who are infinitely precious to God our creator and redeemer. Second, we give thanks that we live in a climate where the value and dignity of each person is still taken for granted; and we renew our resolution not to let this heritage be cheapened or abandoned in any way. God does not forget the smallest of his creatures. And he calls us all to share that loving, sometimes painful, remembering by which we honour the gifts given us through the lives of our dear friends, parents and children, sisters and brothers. There is silence in grief; but there are still words in our hearts, images and thoughts which cannot be destroyed and which today we hold before God, praying that we may all, with those whom we love, 'come to ourselves' in heaven.
Rowan Williams,2 1 November 2005

Let us end by saying together with St Paul:
For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life; nor angels; nor principalities, nor powers; nor things present, nor things to come; nor height, nor depth; nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.Romans 8:38-39

1Please follow the hyperlink to read the complete poem, which I am unable to reproduce here in full for reasons of copyright.

2 Grateful thanks to Lambeth Palace for permission to reproduce this sermon, which is © Rowan Williams 2005

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