I suppose you might say that mortality has played its part in my life, both when I was working and afterwards. As a doctor, part of the job was to care for the dying, and how difficult that was! You had to recognize that moment when it was no longer the role of the doctor to do tests and investigate and treat and cure. What was needed was to try and help another human being, physically emotionally and spiritually, to make their final journey: to recognize that dying is itself part of living. It was humbling and inspiring work, but also harrowing. I spent a little time training in paediatrics but soon decided that it was not for me – I just couldn’t take the tragedy and grief of a child’s death; and I still have the greatest respect for the dedicated medics who choose to work with sick children. But there was an aspect of my job that strangely enough I didn’t find particularly disturbing and that was the inevitable visits to the dissecting room and the mortuary: the body after death seemed to hold no horrors, because wherever the person was, he or she was not there.
Both before and after retirement from medicine I’ve been privileged, as a Reader, to visit the dying and the bereaved, to take funeral and memorial services, and to struggle with that great challenge which faces all preachers and ministers – how to express the faith of the Church in a loving God, in the face of the dark and brutal fact of death. And as both doctor and minister I have at times felt very exposed – exposed to the raw feelings and emotions of both the dying and the grieving: those well-recognised feelings of shock, denial, anger, regret, guilt, depression: and also the questioning – why me, why my husband, why my daughter? So many things can stand in the way of a good death, both for the person dying and for the loved ones they leave behind: the regrets and unfinished business, the loss and the parting, the emptiness which nothing can fill, the physical and emotional turmoil that seems to go on and on. Even the very circumstances of a death can for a time blot out for us all the happy memories, and the legacy for good that the loved one has left behind
Our experience of death is always complex, never easy and sometimes utterly devastating. But if we are honest with ourselves the first step we must take is to accept that our experiences are true and real, that they are ours and that they matter to us. Sometimes the well-meaning comforting of our friends can make matters worse: yes life has to go on – but must it be like this? And no, the person whose death I grieve is not just in the next room, even though I keep thinking and hoping that they are. Even the teaching of the church can sometimes fail us: in our grief and distress the idea of heaven may seem unimaginable and the souls in it as far removed from us as life is from death.
But there is another quite different sort of experience which is just as real as anything we’ve mentioned so far. It happens not so much to individuals as to groups of men and women and children united by a common bond. And the bond that unites them, strangely enough, is the experience itself.
I’m sorry to talk in riddles – let me try to explain by taking you on a journey. Step down, if you will, into a pitch-black labyrinth of underground tunnels on the island of Malta, where St. Paul was shipwrecked. These are the ancient Christian catacombs, almost as old as the Christian church itself. And among the hundreds of stone tombs carved out of the rock you will be startled to come across a wall-painting, bright in white and yellow, as fresh as when it was painted by the flickering light of the oil lamp all those centuries ago. It shows another tomb, but one framed in a garden, and flooded with light. In the garden a man and a woman are kneeling on either side of a figure standing between them, whose face is difficult to make out. It is of course a picture of the Resurrection of Jesus, a loving and joyful record of the experience of the church, not just on that first Easter Sunday, but of the church of the catacombs and of all Christian communities in every generation.
The picture is not about belief in the Resurrection, it is a wonderful expression of how Christians experience the Resurrection. It is an affirmation of how in following the Risen Christ, in the church’s life and worship, and above all in the love we show each other, God makes all things new. It is not a denial of the fact of death: but it does put death firmly in its place. It expresses not the belief, but the experience: that it is not death that is at the heart of the universe, but life itself. Like the Jews before us who saw in their deliverance from slavery the hand of God, we see in every sign of renewal and deliverance in the world the signature of the Resurrection.
None of this necessarily makes death and separation any easier for us to accept, nor heaven any easier to understand. But it is, if you like, death’s antidote, death’s anti-matter. Cutting across any arguments for and against belief, the Resurrection is something we can know and experience. In the Risen Christ the renewal of life becomes woven into the fabric of the universe, it is written into the very constitution of existence. ‘Our lives are hidden with Christ in God’ and nothing, not even death itself, can separate us, or our loved ones, from God’s love.
The Resurrection of Our Lord cannot remove the pain of death and parting. But I am certain that it is the starting point for acceptance, when denial subsides and the questions stop. It heralds the release of the ‘letting go’, and the coming of inner peace. And it is the beginning of re-growth and new life. And as the experience unfolds there can come a time when we can find it in us to whisper, even through the tears: ‘Alleluia, Christ is risen!’