Weekly Reflection - 19th February 2021
18 February 2021
Rev Canon Derek Walmsley
I have to confess that the pandemic has forced me to think more than ever before about my own mortality. The number of daily deaths associated with covid-19 is reported every night on the TV news and it makes me stop and think. If this sounds morbid, then feel free to stop reading. Look away now. On second thoughts, keep reading… you may need this.
I’ve been researching my family tree during lockdown and the website I’ve been using creates a chart which shows each person, how they are related to their parents, siblings and children, the dates they were born and the dates they died. This is how everyone is summed up. Birth, marriage and death and only the first and last apply to everyone.
The bald fact is this: all of us were born and all of us will die. If we survive the pandemic, something else will get us in the end. Psalm 103, often read at the graveside says: “As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.”
Another text often read at funerals is the famous poem “Death is nothing at all”, written by Henry Scott-Holland, a priest at St. Paul's Cathedral during the Great War. The poem provides comfort to many people, although like many clergy colleagues, I worry because the poem was originally first used in the context of a sermon and was used to illustrate how some people would like to approach grief – as though nothing has happened. It may be pastorally helpful for a time, but it risks denying that something sad has occurred.
(For my funeral, if we must have a poem, then I would prefer it to be John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud”, which ends, “One short sleep past, we wake eternally, And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.”)
While our Christian faith gives us an assurance that death itself will die, when a loved one dies we are not supposed to feel nothing. This is not a time for some “stiff upper lip” pretending, or for saying “Oh, it’s all okay really.”
I’ve noticed that in his sermons Bishop Nick often mixes gentle humour with a regular stark reminder that we live (and die) in the real world. That Christianity is not meant to simply be a prop to make us feel better. We need to honestly face up to tough facts. Similarly, C. S. Lewis wrote “A Grief Observed” when his wife died, in which he gets angry and argues with God. According to my Bible, that’s allowed.
One of my favourite Bible passages is from John 11 which is the story of the raising of Lazarus. Spoiler alert: Jesus brings Lazarus back from the dead at the end. Through the whole chapter, it has been apparent that Jesus knows what he is expecting throughout this passage and it seems when you read it again that he knew exactly what he would do. However, just before the astonishing big finale, Jesus stands at the graveside and weeps.
Here we see the full two-sided nature of the Christian response to death. Firstly, we have full assurance of the resurrection to eternal life. In John 11, Jesus tells both Martha and Mary, “‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” But secondly, we also have a Lord who weeps with us at the graveside of our loved ones.
No, death is not “alright”. Not at all. A day will come when we weep no more. But for now Jesus weeps with us.