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Advent 3: Death

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The season of Advent, in which we prepare for the coming of light into the world through the birth of the Christ child at Christmas, is traditionally a time when Christians explore what are sometimes called the 'Four Last Things': Heaven, Hell, Death and Judgment - three of which are very dark and difficult themes. 

And the reason for this is very simple and perfectly logical.  Because if you want to learn the true value of light, try living in darkness for a while.  It is only when my house is plunged into darkness during a power failure, that I suddenly recognise my utter dependence upon the electric light that most of the time I am privileged to take for granted.  And in the same way, if we really want to understand our need of the light of Christ, then we need to spend some time engaging with the reality of darkness.  Which is why this morning I want to talk about one of those dark Advent themes: namely, death.

Interestingly enough, the most profound and significant insights that have shaped my own understanding of death, all date back to my childhood.  And although my understanding of most things, death included, is obviously much deeper and more sophisticated now than it was then, those core insights have for me remained essentially unchanged.  Let me describe them for you.

The first is this.  When I was aged about seven, I can remember reading an anthology of fables of a classic northern European kind - stories about princes and princesses and lowly woodcutters and the like. But there was one particular story in that collection that had profound and lasting impact upon me. 

It was the story of a good and wise king, who was rewarded for his kindness by being given a wish - he could wish for anything that he wanted.  And because he was good and wise, he decided that rather than seeking something for himself, he would instead wish for something that would benefit all of his subjects.  So he thought long and hard, and eventually decided that the one thing that would bring the most joy and happiness into the lives of his people would be if he abolished death.  And this he did. 

As you can imagine, this news was greeted with great rejoicing throughout his kingdom.  However, the King soon started to recognise what a catastrophic mistake he had made. Very soon the chilling realisation dawned on him that if children continued to be born in his kingdom, but nobody ever died, the long-term consequences of an infinite and ever increasing population, with limited food resources available, were too awful to contemplate.  But then something even more terrible happened. 

One day two men called at his palace carrying between them a bundle of rags.  In fact it wasn't a bundle of rags at all - it turned out to be an ancient decrepit old woman, who was blind and deaf, and crippled, and ailing, and in terrible pain, and also very, very angry.  And she said to the King: 'Why have you done this cruel and heartless thing to me?  I had had a good life, my body was worn out and I was ready to take my leave of this earth.  And yet you have denied me that right, and condemned me instead to a life of increasing and unending pain, torment and misery.'  And the rest of the story was about how that very well-intentioned, but profoundly misguided King had to try to find a way of reversing what both he and his subjects had all assumed would be a good and wise decision in abolishing death.

You see, it is very easy for human beings to assume that the worst thing that can ever happen to us, or to anyone else, is death.  Actually it isn't.  The process of dying can of course be pretty terrible, but death itself can be kind.

A second story from my childhood.  My father's family were farmers, and when I was growing up I used to spend the long summer holidays on my grandparents' farm.  And one of my favourite haunts was the graveyard of the ancient Saxon church that stood high up on a hill right in the centre of their village.  I loved it, partly because I was intrigued by the life stories of the people who were buried there, as revealed on their crumbling tombstones, every one of them unique.  But I also loved it because for me that particular churchyard was the most beautiful, and peaceful place that I had ever experienced: it was filled with wild flowers, and bordered by ancient hedgerows, and it gave wonderful views of the surrounding countryside; it was a place where you could look down, unseen, upon the people of the village, and the local farms, going about their daily business.  Far from being creepy or ghoulish, it was for me a place of profound stillness and tranquillity, which left me with a very real sense of the deep peacefulness of death, far removed from the petty troubles of life on this earth - it was a place that for me held no fears or foreboding whatsoever.

And a third insight.  I can remember when I was at primary school having a memorable RE lesson, in which our wonderful class teacher, Mrs Robertson, told us the Easter story.  It was not the first time we had heard it, but somehow she managed to tell the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus so extraordinarily well that our entire class was riveted: indeed, we were all so completely absorbed in it, that the lesson overran, and much to our annoyance we had to forego PE as a result.  But I can remember the dazzlingly blinding insight that came to my seven year old self, as I was writing up that story in my exercise book.  Which was basically this: if Jesus died, and rose again from the dead, then we know with absolute certainty that death is not the end; that there is an existence beyond this one.  And that means that death is not something of which we need be afraid. 

It really was as simple as that.  And yes, I was clearly destined to become a vicar even at the age of seven. 

Now, of course, these days I am older and wiser and have had infinitely more experience of life and of all its complexities.  But, as I indicated earlier, strangely enough I still find myself returning to those three basic insights about death that I grasped all those decades ago: firstly that death is not the worst thing that can happen to us - on the contrary, sometimes it can come to us as a gift; secondly, that the destiny of those who die is one of profound peace and beauty and tranquillity.  And thirdly, that we can know without any doubt at all that death cannot have the final word; because Jesus was raised from the dead: death could not hold him. 

It always comes as a shock when a friend, or a family member (or even oneself) is diagnosed with a terminal or life-threatening illness.  Because we tend to forget that life is, of course, terminal for all of us.  The only difference is that some of us have a slightly clearer idea than others of when it is likely to come our way. 

During my 30 years of Christian ministry, I have often travelled alongside individuals who are nearing the end of life.  And the strange paradox is that sometimes it is in only in the process of dying that human beings are finally able to discover what it really means to live: because sometimes it takes a deep recognition of the fact that our time on this earth is limited, for us to turn our attention to the things that really matter: to repair broken relationships; to value the precious gift of each moment; to treasure each human interaction; each beautiful ray of sunlight.

Just over five years ago, in November 2011, the Labour peer Philip Gould died aged 61, having finally lost his battle against cancer of the oesophagus.  During the last days of his life he gave a televised interview with Andrew Marr; and the testimony he gave was a remarkable one.  He spoke of the astonishing intensity of his experience of life during what he knew was its final phase, which he described in terms of a gift.  Indeed, he said (and I quote): "The right place for me to be at this time is in this final place."  And when he said that, his face was so full of life, and light, and energy, and zest, and peace with himself, that it was hard to credit that this was a man whose life was about to end.

Three weeks ago, the sad, sad story of the fourteen year old girl who was dying of cancer, who wished her body to be frozen cryonically on death, became headline news.  We should weep for that girl, whose young life was so cruelly shortened by that terrible disease.  But we should also weep for a society is now fostering the foolish and misguided belief that the day will come when human technology will eventually conquer death. 

Because that misplaced hope arises out of an attitude towards death that sees it as a problem that eventually human ingenuity will be able to solve, rather than as a natural and in fact very important part of what it means to live.

Perhaps the worst thing about death is not so much death as our fear of it.  But because Christ has conquered death, we no longer need be afraid. 

And thanks be to God for that.     Amen.

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