Dear Friends, I understand and accept that people die, but I wish one could still ’phone them. There are friends who died years ago whom I still miss and would probably have far deeper conversations with, now that I am older and more "seasoned" by life. I hope it is all true, that resurrection awaits and reconciliation with loved ones will be known. I even hope that some friends will have mansions adjoining mine, or at least their gardens will. I recall the then Bishop of Chichester, Eric Kemp saying at some gathering in the 1990’s, "This life is for making friends. The next life is for enjoying those friendships”. This coming Sunday is Passion Sunday, when we think particularly about Jesus’ death, hence my concentrating on this theme in my letter to you today, challenging though it is to so many of us to think about. One of the most poignant parts of being a parish priest is being invited to conduct people’s Funerals. I cannot imagine how many there have been over the 31 years of my ministry. I still remember my first. I visited the next of kin who began by saying, "I’m so grateful to you for agreeing to take my friend’s Funeral, she wasn’t even on your electric roll!" There have been some deaths which have come as a kindness, some as a shock, some as an inevitable consequence of a protracted illness, others which seem against the laws of nature happening so early on in someone`s life. Some die serenely, others not quite so. Some die having said what they wanted, what they needed to say to loved ones, others are deprived of that opportunity. Suicides are the ones which stick with me most persistently, leaving something unresolved in the air, as though requiring something of one which one simply cannot offer. I have taken the Funerals of some men and women who have been so penetrated by the presence of God that the whole church is filled with golden light as one gathers around them to give thanks for their lives. The prayer of Commendation seems superfluous at such times, for they seem well on their way already to the place which has been prepared for them. Surprisingly perhaps I have made many friends through the Funerals I have conducted, close friends, sometimes the very closest. Starting in so unpromising a way, although perhaps not so, for something so fundamental is being shared right from the very start: loss, hope, grief, pain, longing, thanksgiving, endings, beginnings, love. Most of the time we keep the thought of death at bay, and who can blame us? It is anathema to those who seek life. But a century ago when someone in the household died, their bodies quite often lay in their own homes, especially the day before the Funerals. There was then perhaps more of an acceptance of death, not a tidying away of death and keeping it at bay. I received the bodies of both my parents back to the family home the day before their Funerals. They began their journey to the chapel from where they had ventured out each day of their working lives, from their own home. There was something profoundly right and natural about having them there, being able to pop in to the sitting room where the coffin lay, a candle flame burning bright beside them, defying the darkness, just resting, waiting. It was good to sit there with them in the silence and pray with them and for them. But too many families over this past year have lost loved ones, been deprived of spending time with them toward the end, prevented from having the conversations they needed to have, holding hands, hugging, expressing love. It has been harrowing hearing the daily bulletins on the news of statistics of those who have died, like a constant hammer blow upon the tranquillity which we seek. And what has The Church’s response been to what is going on? Your experience may be different from mine, but I have been more aware of the Church’s silence than speech, as though too shocked to know what to say. It is not surprising that people have not been able to find the words to speak into the void which has been before us. Perhaps the language has not been crafted yet which can make sense out of the reality we are experiencing. Poets are still contemplating the pain before being able to offer their verse, their vision, their views. Composers are still considering the heartache before being able to evoke in sound the trauma we have been going through, with the hope not only of expressing it, but transforming and redeeming it. But locally, individually, personally, there has been so much love, hope, compassion, support and empathy going on: gently, humbly, sincerely, loyally, as people have been reaching out in solidarity with one another and lifting each other`s spirits through friendship and shared laughter. None of us has been unmoved or unaffected by what has been happening this past year in the face of this tidal wave of tragedy. In some way or another, we have all journeyed through the valley of the shadow of death. There has been too much pain, too much suffering, too many unanswered questions, too many untimely deaths, too many experiences unlived. The old quotation has never been more potently true, "in the midst of life we are in death". It was strangely appropriate a year ago this coming week, when the first lockdown was declared and as we were all engulfed in the new reality of a COVID infested world, that we were just starting the season of Lent, heading toward Passion Sunday and Holy Week. We then heard the story of Jesus’ death speaking into our own emotional environment of powerlessness and pain. But then, as again this and every year, we were embraced by the energy of resurrection which ignited hope in all our hearts. We heard afresh the story of Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene in the garden, weeping, looking into a cold, dark tomb then turning and coming face to face with the one she missed and mourned for. It felt as though we were being given this story in such a specific and special way by the Holy Spirit last year, to offer reassurance, especially to those who were grieving, questioning, frightened. The Lord has been accompanying us all through this past year and in a few days’ time we will mark the anniversary of the first lockdown being declared, on March 23rd. During this past year, He has sought to resource, reassure, embrace, empower, protect, provide for us all. Passion Sunday and the events which await our attention in Holy Week, remind us each year that Christ is knit to the realities you and I have to deal with, physically, psychologically, emotionally, practically, not just spiritually. The story of Jesus’ life from Passion Sunday onwards is a story of a man who loved humanity so much that He was prepared to enter into it fully and unconditionally, even pain, injustice, rejection, betrayal, disloyalty, humiliation, fear, suffering and death. He not only entered into those experiences willingly, He inhabits and reinterprets them now for us, into experiences where we can meet with Him in His compassion and love. For ours is a God who came and who still comes to share in the reality of our lives. At Lazarus’ tomb we are told that "Jesus wept," (John Chapter 11 verse 35) and Jesus still weeps with us while anyone is suffering in His world. He still looks with understanding and acceptance into the eyes of those who are struggling under life’s pressures. He still says "Peace be with you" to those who are frightened and who feel trapped. He still longs to lay His hand of blessing and healing onto the limbs of those aching with incompleteness. He still longs for us to hear His voice of hope and new life speaking into the void we feel threatened by. He still wishes us to hear Him say to us, as we confront the dark sense of our own mortality, "Because I live, you will live also". May we all, as we prepare this week to walk into the saving events of Holy Week, open our hearts and minds to receive all that Christ longs to fill us with, as He ministers to us in all our needs and questions, as He offers healing and peace to a world which is aching and lost, as He embraces and empowers those who are exhausted by caring and worrying and as He shows those who are fearful of death that it is not the end. His offering of Himself upon the Cross has transformed an end into a beginning. In that hope, in that faith, in that power, may He reach out to you all with His love. With blessings and best wishes Jeff
Do please join us on ZOOM this coming Sunday at 9.30am. The readings for Passion Sunday are: Hebrews Chapter 5 verses 5-10 and John Chapter 12 verses 20-33. The Collect: Most Merciful God, Who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ, delivered and saved humanity: Grant that by faith in Him who suffered Death upon the Cross we may triumph in His victory. This we ask through the same, Jesus Christ Our Lord, Who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and for ever. AMEN.