This week has been Dying Awareness Week, a campaign supported, to get people talking and thinking more about death.
Linda Woodhead has commented in theGuardian that “the churches’ hold over birth, marriage and death has weakened dramatically”. Funerals are difficult for everyone, but young people can find them particularly disconcerting. I was standing at the graveside as the coffin of a 21-year-old whose life had been cut short by a particularly vigorous cancer, was lowered. Very quietly, almost under her breath, one of her friends whispered “Is this it? Is this all there is?”
There is nothing like death for focusing the mind on the purpose of life. This is when Christian hope needs to be strongly articulated, not weakened. It is a hope in which we think of time and eternity as largely continuous and, more importantly, as being related to one another as dimensions of reality, both given by God for our existence.
This is not all there is, this material world we see around us. Indeed, it has a past, a present and a future. But that past, present and future do not stand alone, disconnected. They stand in close relationship with another life, with eternity, and with death and resurrection. At the centre of all life is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, an event both in history and transcending history, of such a character as to open up to us the eternal view on the world. And it is from that point of view —namely from eternity — that we want to see everything that happens here on earth. Jesus is the integration point of what has been, what is and what is to come and he is the Way to be followed, not a goal to be achieved.
His death and resurrection become, for Christians, the beginning, centre and end of all our attention. Here begins, in a way unknown even in earlier Judaism, a story of life being restored, of this life not being the sum total of all there is, of life beyond death. The eschaton - literally the last in the series - almost seems to reach back into time and into human history and in Jesus’ resurrection, shows itself for what it is, namely another dimension to things that goes beyond the material and the physical, which actually gives the material new meaning: a richer, deeper texture than it had before. And it was as world changing for the apostles as it is to today.
Tom Torrance put it powerfully in his book Space, Time and Resurrection.
He writes: “That God Himself had become man was an offence to the Jew and folly to the Greek; that Jesus Christ rose from the dead was deemed to be utterly incredible. Yet the incarnation and resurrection forced themselves upon the mind of the Church against the grain of people’s convictions, as ultimate events bearing their own intrinsic but shattering claims of the self-evidencing reality and transcendent rationality of God Himself and they took root within the Church only through a seismic restructuring of religious and intellectual belief.”
Strangely, then, the death of Jesus is not the end of all that is, but proves to be the door that opens on to a new realm, a new world, a new dimension, which changes everything that has gone before, and that is and is to come.
Around Easter, we usually remind ourselves that following Jesus means following him on the way to glory and that means via the way of the cross. The redemptive work of the cross requires for us a renewed sense of vocation here and now.
We live the whole of life purposefully and in hope now because of what has been and is to come. “We are but shadows of our future selves,” comments Tom Wright. What answer to “Is this it?” might my young mourner observe if she were to examine the realties of life and death in the shadow in your shoes tonight? How will you take part in the conversations about dying in such a way that not only are we preparing young people for life but also for death?
Ann Holt, Director of External Relations, Bible Society - Evangelical Alliance