April 2014

A Matter of Life and Death

The Benefice Newsletter has, as a regular feature, From the Registers. This details Baptisms, Marriages and Funerals which have taken place in the churches. Baptismal services are sometimes called Christenings. There is a subtle difference. All Christenings are Baptisms, but not all Baptisms are Christenings. All those which I take are, in fact, Christenings. (If you are intrigued by this or merely suffer from insomnia, I will gladly tell you the difference.) Marriages are always called Marriages, but Funerals are hardly ever called Funerals. Instead they are called Thanksgiving Services or Memorial Services or some such circumlocution. I cannot remember the last time I saw the word Funeral appear on the front cover of a service sheet.

I think this is more than an issue about words. If we are at a Thanksgiving Service or a Memorial Service, then the focus is on us and the thanks we give and the memories we share. But that is not what a Funeral Service is primarily about. The most important thing that happens at a Funeral Service is that we commend whoever it is that has died to the love and care of Almighty God. And that part gets almost swamped by all the other things in the service. It seems as if the fact that someone has actually died needs to be covered up. There is sometimes a poem read at funerals which begins ‘Death is nothing at all, I have only slipped away into the next room,’ and that is just wrong. Death is not ‘nothing at all’ Just as Baptisms and Marriages mark significant events in our pilgrimage of faith, so do Funerals: they mark the time when we commend to God whoever has died as he or she passes from this life to the life to come. What could be more important than that? Yet it so often seems almost to be ignored. I have been to funerals where, while there might have been bible readings, the whole idea of the resurrection to eternal life has been left unuttered.

Why am I ranting about this now? Well, this month sees the holiest time of the year, when we commemorate Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection. Now I am sure we have goodly numbers for our Palm Sunday Procession – a really important public witness to our faith. (I hope also we will have a donkey for that procession: as I write, I am still to find one. If you know of a rideable one, please let me know) We have built up good numbers for our meditations on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and I hope this year, with the wonderful Stations of the Cross by Arnold Daghani at their centre that people will find this a real way to a deeper understanding of Christ’s sufferings. The Maundy Thursday celebration of the Last Supper has become a central event to a goodly number of people, and Easter itself – especially with our being able to greet the Risen Lord at Dawn from the Black Hill – is celebrated with proper gusto. At the heart of all this, however, is Good Friday.

We have two services on Good Friday, and the Service of Devotions especially is attracting a number of people. But there are not nearly as many as worship on Easter Day. And, being a simple soul, I find this strange. After all, we cannot celebrate Christ’s resurrection without at least acknowledging that he died first. But people draw away from death and pretend it is not there. I have even heard it said that we don’t need to get too upset on Good Friday because we all know what is going to happen on the third day. Well, no. Jesus says that if anyone wants to follow him, they must first of all take up their cross. We cannot follow Christ to his resurrection without first following him through his death: a horrible death. And, I think, it is not horrible primarily because of the physical suffering he had to endure, but rather because of the even greater pain he suffered – that of rejection. he was not only rejected by all of his followers but in St Mark’s Gospel – as those who have been reading it for the Book Club will know – he felt rejected by God. The only words he speaks from the cross in that gospel are ,’My God, my God, what have you forsaken me?’, and it is into that depth that we are called to follow him. And we cannot fully understand or share in the heights unless we are prepared to face the depths, and that means, in this case, facing Good Friday and all that it means.

I am not by nature morbid: I am normally a fairly happy soul and certainly don’t spend my time brooding about death. But I know that it awaits me and I trust that, when the time comes, I will be properly commended to the love and care of God and that nobody will clog up my funeral service with tributes or eulogies or the like. I know that I will only be following the same pathway that Christ has followed before and my hope is that of eternal life with him. But I also know that I cannot reasonably hope to follow him through his death and resurrection unless I am prepared to celebrate both of them and try to gain a deeper understanding of what they both mean. There is no Easter without Good Friday.