What follows is the first Advent address on the Four Last Things... This week... death... I am indebted especially to Richard Holloway and his book 'Anger,Sex, Doubt, Death'
They say that there are only 2 things certain in life - death and taxes. In the current financial climate I wouldn’t dream of talking about taxes. I do though, on this the first of four Advent addresses, want to talk about death.
During Advent, the church has traditionally meditated on what it calls the Four Last Things - death, judgement, heaven and hell. They are traditionally the things that the dying contemplate on before the inevitable, or to put another way, they are the four things that the dead encounter after death.
In society in general death is marginalised. In former generations death usually occurred at home and was followed by burial in the churchyard at the centre of the community; more typically nowadays death happens in an institution followed by a funeral at an out of town venue. In order to put off the idea of our mortality we use an increasing array of means to mitigate the effects of ageing - creams, diets, exercise, surgery etc. And its not just that purple is the new black, no, today 60 is the new 40.
Funerals themselves have changed. In the Book of Common Prayer there the service was frankly entitled ‘Burial of the dead’. More and more we have ‘Services of Thanksgiving.’ The funeral is turned into a version of ‘This is your life’; the death of the subject is conveniently ignored. And even within supposedly Christian funerals there is pressure for elements which are scarcely compatible with Christian belief. All too often I am asked if we can have what purports to be a poem about death:
Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was…
These words were written by Henry Scott Holland when he was a Canon of St Paul’s cathedral in London. But they weren’t written as a poem, these words, and the longer version usually quoted, were part of a sermon. Scott Holland fashions these words to encapsulate one response to death, a response which often comes in the immediate wake of a death but which swiftly evaporates. Alongside this response to death he expressed another view,
Death ‘makes all we do here meaningless and empty…. It is the cruel ambush into which we are snared... It is the pit of destruction. It wrecks, it defeats, it shatters It makes its horrible breach in our gladness with careless and inhuman disregard of us. We get no consideration from it. Often and often it stumbles in
like an evil mischance, like a feckless misfortune. Its shadow falls across our natural sunlight, and we are swept off into some black abyss. There is no light or hope in the grave; there is no reason to be wrung out of it.’
Though from the same Scott Holland sermon, this extract is not read at funerals.
But death for the Christian is neither ‘nothing at all’ nor is there ‘no light or hope in the grave’, as the Canon goes on to explain.
Paul writes in Rom 6:23 ‘the wages of sin is death’. Death is a serious thing, it is not a trivial or illusory as the first scenario from Scott Holland suggests. But Paul’s verse continues ‘but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord’. Therefore the second scenario from Scott Holland is also wide of the mark. For us as Christians therefore we can own on the one hand the seriousness of death, but also to our hope that it does not have the final word; hence Paul can taunt death, I Cor 15:55 "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O grave, is your sting?"
Christian hope in the face of death is an abiding trust in the God who called us out of nothing into life and who will call us again to life out of the second nothing of death. We have no security in ourselves, no false hopes, no naive longings. Our only ground for hope is the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead.
This hope is founded on expectation - on the expectation that death is not the end of life and that hope is rooted in God alone. Our expectations lie in the promise of a reliable God who already, in Christ, set the action of our resurrection in motion. God defeated death by raising Christ from the dead at Easter, and his resurrection is the assurance and beginning our of resurrection.
Death reminds us that we are indeed mortal. Dust we are and to dust we shall return. But remember out of that dust God made human beings and to that dust he gave the gift of life an through faith in Christ he brings that dust to the kingdom of heaven.
Death reminds us of the weakness but also the glory of humanity. Weakness because the universe ultimately defeats us, brings us to dissolution and reminds us that we are dust just dust. We must never be tempted to see Christ’s own death as at best God’s identification to our plight or at worst God’s last ditch rescue mission, for Christ’s death on the cross stands between our fallenness and our fulfilment, between the dust from which we come and the glory towards which we move, between Eden and the New Jerusalem. The resurrection of Jesus confirms this for us. We may be dust, but we assured through the resurrection of Christ, that we are glorious dust through the will of Him who had the first word not allowing death to have the last word. Amen