In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Many of you will know the famous hymn of S. Francis of Assisi which is known as the Canticle of the Sun. The well-loved hymn “All creatures of our God and King” is based on this hymn of St Francis. In it, S. Francis praises God through and for God’s creation: Brother Sun, Sister Moon and the Stars. When he was coming to the end of his earthly life, he added a verse which we also find in our hymnbooks, but which is sadly one of the starred verses that is often left out: “Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whom no man living can escape”. These words can at first strike us as odd. It’s easy enough to understand why we might praise God for the various aspects of God’s creation that we enjoy, and that we might think of those things too as giving glory to God each in their way – the sun, the moon and stars, the earth and the waters and fire and wind, and so forth. But death? Why would we praise God for death? Why would we address death as our sister? And in what way can we think of death as giving praise to God?
Are you afraid of death? It’s an odd question to ask, but it’s one I’ve been thinking about myself recently. Covid 19 has made death feel somehow more of an immediate possibility, and I am sure that is also the case for many of you. I am unusual for someone of my age, because I deal with death very regularly through funeral ministry. I probably average something like a funeral a week, so death is on my mind probably rather more than is the case for most healthy people in their early forties. But Covid 19 may have brought about a change of perspective for many. For those who are elderly, and those who have pre-existing health conditions, there has probably already been a certain element of facing up to mortality. But for those of us who are comparatively young and healthy, every reported death of a person like us gives us a little shiver. We feel reasonably confident that we could shake off this virus, but we cannot quite be sure.
Am I afraid of death? I would like to think that I am not, but the truth is I just haven’t been close enough to it in a personal sense to really know. Such health problems as I have had in life have been relatively minor.
Does Christian faith mean that we shouldn’t be afraid of death? That too is a difficult question to answer. If we look to Jesus, the three synoptic gospels have Jesus in anguish, praying that He may be spared the cup that He is to drink; in John’s gospel Jesus is described as deeply troubled during the Last Supper. It’s hard to say whether this is fear of death, or fear of the manner of the death which He is to suffer. But in the end I think that fear of death is a part of being human; some are able to overcome it to a greater or lesser degree, but in the end it is a natural feeling, and since Jesus fully shared our humanity, I think we can assume that He shared our natural fear of death too, at least to some extent.
Fear of death is a natural part of being human, but our Christian faith can help us. I am not saying that it will allow each and every one of us to face death without fear, although that certainly does sometimes happen. I have seen people die without fear several times, and I have known people to even look forward to death, I remember one particular dear old lady who spoke of dying and seeing Jesus in much the same way she might have spoken of popping to see a friend who lived around the corner. For many of us, perhaps for most of us, the grace to have that sort of strong, simple confident faith is not given to us. But our faith should be able to help us to ease our fears, and to put death into perspective.
Our faith can ease our fears and offer us comfort because we know that Jesus has walked this path before us. We know that in suffering and pain and isolation we are close to Him, and He to us. We know that even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, He is with us, we know that He has already been there. And that in itself is a wonderful thing: that God in Jesus should enter into creation and become subject to its limits, and should suffer and die, this is something extraordinary.
What is more extraordinary is Jesus’ triumph over death. How could death hold Him, who is life itself? “Do not be afraid, He is not here, He has been raised”. It’s noteworthy that in Matthew’s account the women run with both fear and great joy. The fear of death is natural, they cannot quite shake it off straight away, and yet the joy is greater.
Jesus has triumphed over death, and that triumph is ours to share. As S. John Chrysostom’s famous Easter sermon puts it, “He has destroyed death by undergoing death. He has despoiled hell by descending into hell… It received a body, and encountered God. It received earth, and confronted heaven. It received what it saw, and was overpowered by what it did not see. O death, where is your sting? O hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are cast down.”
Jesus has triumphed over death, and that triumph is ours to share. Bodily death remains as the horizon that bounds our earthly lives. Bodily death remains as the means by which we are brought from this life to a better, fuller, truer life. But it is not a thing of terror; like the sun and the moon and the stars, it has its place in God’s order. We may not quite feel able with S. Francis to address death as our sister, but perhaps we understand his point: death is a natural part of life through which we transition to a new life with God. It is a parting, it is a farewell, and there is of course an element of sadness that goes with that. We cannot escape it, but it will not have the last word.
So let us cast our fears down at the feet of our Lord, and with the women in today’s gospel, let us worship Him. Let us worship Him in the knowledge that however hard the path ahead may be for us as individuals, as a church, as a nation, as a world, Jesus has trodden the way of suffering, and He walks with us. Let us worship Him in the confidence that He has triumphed over death, that He has taken captivity captive, that He has brought good out of evil, hope out of fear, light out of darkness, life out of death. And let us worship Him in hope, knowing that we are His friends, and He wants us to be with Him to share in His glorious risen life.
Alleluia, Christ is Risen!
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.