There are times in Priestly ministry when its representative character is thrown into starkest relief. When Black and White lose any overlap. Life and Death is the Clear choice.
Today the church observes Holy Saturday. For many of those who note this day it is a day lacking a story. Jesus is dead. Easter is not yet. But that isn’t the fullest story.
‘He descended to the dead’ we recite in the Creed. But this is no passive slumber. No, today Christ is Harrowing Hell. The One who is The Word, the Alpha and the Omega, taking our last words and trashing them. The Living One is The Last Word.
Last week I was called from the slumber of a day off and bidden to follow Christ into a hell, to proclaim Life in the midst of Death. A young man, 20 years old had died by his own hand, and the church called me to step down into the Hell that this was for his family.
On Maundy Thursday I conducted his funeral – a church packed with young people few if any conversant with Christian faith, facing something that had left them utterly numb, facing Death, nothing else. With no other story.
As I waited outside church for the family I was forcibly struck by the contrast of attire. For all these young folk, Black was the only colour on display, from black dresses for the girls, black ties, and a shed load of sunglasses to hide from the fierce late summer antipodean sun. Despite the ‘modern’ predilection for avoiding death, for ‘celebrating a life’, there was no doubt in these young people’s minds, no hope. This was about Death. It was a funeral.
‘Contrast of attire?’ I was privileged to have as many years The Reverend Christine Clarke as my spiritual director. One of the first 12 women to be ordained priest in the Church of England, I learnt far more about Christian faith and life from her than anyone else over the years, by a substantial margin. The Wisest person I have ever known.
When as a callow seminarian I trained with Christine, I asked about the suitability of her funeral robes, white cassock alb and white stole. She said, ‘what else do we have to offer as Christians but the message of the Resurrection’
I have to say it took me a while to learn this, deep down. Then as a Good Protestant, this was way off my radar. I had learned that it was my job ‘to comfort people but not to give false hope’. ‘How can you proclaim resurrection if they weren’t Christian?’ How can you? How can one proclaim Life in the midst of Death?
But I have come to see that that is precisely what we are to do, to be the church, as a priest to represent the church, to follow in the way of Christ and boldly say ‘No’ to the narratives of death.
And so amidst all the black there I was, in white, the contrast all the sharper in the blazing sun.
Several people have asked me for the sermon I preached and I attach the text.
But I ask you to read it on one condition, that if you do so, you will join with me and the people of the church I am privileged to serve, in praying for the soul of a young man named Ross, and also for his family.
I know that for some of my readers this will be way outside your comfort zone, but this is where Christ bids us go. This is Holy Saturday. Christ Harrows Hell. Let us follow him boldly in prayer, for according to The Last Word even the gates of hell shall not prevail against us.
Today as we gather in this place to remember Ross, to pay our respects, to Grieve and to mourn, to share together in our confusion and pain and loss – we do not do so alone. We are not alone.
We meet in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We gather together as a community of people knowingly or otherwise bearing the image of the God who has created us and given us life, the One who is Community in and of himself, as the Christian faith asserts God is Love. And made as we are in the image of the God who is Love, then our lives are expressions of that Love in which we are made.
Put another way, as the poet John Donne said, ‘not one of us is a Island’, and your presence here today expresses that truth, not one of us is Alone, not one. However much the dark spirit of this present age might whisper to us ‘you have to stand on your own two feet’, ‘you have to be self sufficient’, ‘no one can live your life but you’ the presence of so many here today shows these are lies. If these things were the truth about us, then there would be no-one here today. If these things were true, then there would be no pain, no grief
It is close to impossible to find anything Good to say about the circumstances in which we meet, but perhaps if when we leave this place and go out into the world, we have learnt better to deny that life is about standing on our own two feet. To say ‘No!’ when someone tells us ‘you have to be self sufficient’. To know that leaning on one another bearing one another’s burdens is not an occasional necessity in difficult circumstances, but the very fibre of what it means to be human, that to be alive is to be deeply linked to everyone we meet – to know that we are never alone – to know that we are not self sufficient – to know that we are made to lean on one another – then perhaps Good may yet come out of this
All of our lives are inextricably linked. What is joy if not shared? What is Sorrow if not shared? What is Life if not shared? To be Alive is to be joined one to another, to live in mutual dependence, to need other people, and to be gift to other people – it is the meaning of our lives – that we are created By Love, In Love and For Love. It is the fundamental Truth of our existence – as your presence here today testifies.
And so I say to Ross’s family – you are not alone – you are held in Love. And here briefly I’d like to pay tribute to Ross’s close friends who have not stayed distant but I know have expressed such love and support to Ross’ family these past days – keep it up folks – we will contnue to need each other – it is what our lives are about.
And it is because that is the Truth about us, that our lives are inextricably bound up in each others, that there is so much pain today. Because Love is the foundation of who we are, when that Love is denied, it is as though the world falls apart.
We cannot make sense of what has happened. A young man has taken his own life. Yet Ross was so full of Life – happy, spontaneous, Kind, the one who gave a running commentary on life and scrapped with his brother in the back of the car on long journeys. None of this makes any sense. He was so alive, he was and Is so joined to so many – his Life was not a life of isolation, no life is. This makes no sense – it is a deep contradiction of Life
None of us know why Ross did what he did – we cannot know and we are not here to judge. Speculation is hopeless and ultimately despairing and we need to turn from that. What has happened has happened, but the very fact that we are all gathered here today is testament that we are refusing to allow this to be the Last word about his life – that it is not the last word about his life. The last word is that Ross Is Loved. And that the pain and the grief and the searing loss we know here today, his family most of all, is a sign of that profound Love. Here on this terrible day, this day that no-one wanted ever to see, in the midst of the darkness and the suffering, the Truth about Ross is revealed in its fulness, He Is Loved. He is Held, He is not Alone, and neither are any of us.
And not even because of who he was, he was loved, he is loved purely because of his very existence. In all the stories that we have heard, in all the words that yet will no doubt be spoken about Ross – no words can in the end describe him, for Love is the meaning of our lives and we cannot express that, we can only know that it is the fundamental truth about each one of us.
We heard a moment or two ago the words of Jesus. To many perhaps these are words we have not heard before. ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled, trust in God, trust also in me’.
In the midst of our Grief and Loss, we hear an invitation. These words of Jesus he speaks to his closest friends the night before he is cruelly put to death. He is telling them, tremendous darkness lies ahead of you – but there is one who holds you in the darkness. Love is the meaning of your life, you are held in Love – Trust in God, trust also in me.
Tomorrow is Good Friday, it is the day in the Christian calendar when we remember Jesus’ death on the cross for the sake of Love – and Christians live through this each year and we walk on to Easter Sunday, when beyond all human hope, Christ is raised from death. Love has the final Word. He is the Way and the truth and the Life – He is the meaning of our Lives made flesh – He is Love. And Love never fails
We do not have any resources in ourselves to go through these days – No! By the Grace of God who is Love and in whose image we are created, we have resources amongst ourselves – we have Love for one another – let us live and lean on that Love.