1 November 2020, All Saints’ Day
Readings: Ecclesiasticus 38:16-23; 1 Peter 1:3-7; Psalm 91
I want to start by saying thank you: thank you for coming here tonight and making time; time to pause as we reflect on death and bereavement. And it is particularly poignant this year perhaps more than any. For some of us, being able to pause and reflect in the ways we would have wished simply hasn’t been possible, and we must recognise that, so services and moments such as these take on added importance. Or perhaps we’ve acknowledged particular anniversaries, which will always be precious. But however we are, we come this evening – just as we are – to remember and give thanks.
What we are here to do today
Yet we are not here simply to stand still. We often speak of bereavement as a process, and we gather today at what will be for each of us very different stages along that path. We will have memories of loved ones, whether sharp and fresh, or more distant – but always cherished. And just as we are always being shaped and reshaped, so our memories of loved ones begin to be shaped and reshaped, too, as they come with us.
Death – but also new life
The process is an ongoing one. At the funeral service some of the words we pray include asking for the grace to let go into new life. From a Christian perspective, this phrase speaks of the confident hope of the resurrection to new life with God; but more broadly, that same new life looks ahead to a time when for us – as friends, family and loved ones – what has just happened will not seem quite so difficult to bear.
The poet John Donne in one of his Holy Sonnets writes this about death and bereavement:
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me;
Death, thou art not so mighty and dreadful, Donne reflects. A point he’s arrived at having absolutely acknowledged its presence and reality, as we do, too. We cannot and must not escape that. But he is sure, too, that it’s not the end, that there is new life.
And so with Donne, and indeed with the writer of our first reading from Ecclesiasticus, we know that things don’t stop there. In Ecclesiasticus the writer speaks authentically, telling openly of the pain of death, of the need to grieve and mourn, and also be comforted. None of us must ignore the hard reality of losing someone. Yet at the same time we are urged to look beyond; it is not good for our hearts to be weighed down by grief forever. Remember – but don’t be burdened by that remembering. When we speak of moving on, we know that it will look different for each one of us. But there is a comfort in itself as we do so.
And what that moving on looks like isn’t, I think, to do with some kind of knuckling down, grit and resilience from within. We’ve heard a lot in recent times about resilience. Many aspects of society – the healthcare profession, business leaders and teachers to mention just a few have all been encouraged to build resilience in order to address the needs of their communities.
At one level these ideas – resilience, grit and the ability to bounce back – are understandably seductive. Yet when it comes to reflecting on death and bereavement, I think this is deeply unhelpful. Grief isn’t the same as adversity. But crucially, pushing the resilience agenda means asking people to hold fast, make do and tolerate the situation they’re in. And so it means people tend to stay where they are. Taken to extremes, it says that being good at resilience becomes an endurance test – or worse.
There is an alternative, and that is hope. A Christian understanding of hope says that because God is faithful, he will complete what he has already begun. That’s Christian hope. And so where resilience just takes us back to where we were before, hope opens up new life. And that hope is in two parts.
Firstly, there’s hope for those who have gone before us. It’s the sure and certain hope that their souls rest with God and will be raised at the end of time to new life. God became human in the person of Jesus Christ in order to make this possible. And so Jesus’ rising from the dead shows this. Death has been defeated! John Donne, in the same poem I mentioned earlier, goes on to say this: ‘And death shall be no more: Death thou shalt die.’
But there is a second aspect. Hope is also for us now in this world. God became human in the person of Jesus Christ not just for the future, but for today, in order that we might make our world a better place. Peter in our second reading reminds us of this, too. That’s why he describes it as living hope.
We are all loved by God, and so just as we commend to God every soul that has passed out of this visible world, so every soul that remains within it – each one of us – is caught and held in the unwavering beam of God’s divine comfort and care.
 John Donne, Selected Poems, ed. John Hayward (Penguin, 1981).