Death: the most brutal of facts?

I have a priest friend who did not like preaching. He didn’t think he was very good, he never thought he had anything important to say. In retirement he was an assistant priest in a church in central London which had a pretty high standard of preaching. And so, what he lacked in content he made up for in dramatic effect. One Sunday he began his sermon by saying that he wasn’t going to begin with a text from scripture but with a quotation from the Independent Newspaper. He hung over the edge of the pulpit and declaimed: ‘Death: the most brutal of facts; death the most brutal of facts ‘ After a long dramatic pause, he asked, ‘is it?’

I do not now recall the rest of the sermon, but I have never forgotten the question. Is death, the most brutal, the most savagely cruel, mercilessly frank of facts?

Our culture has an ambivalent attitude to death: on the one hand we are absolutely saturated with death and killing in popular entertainment. Murder mysteries abound on our tv screens. The average action movie will have scores of slayings. And yet, this abundant display of mortality seems to anaesthetize us from the reality of death. It makes it unreal. Death is pretty much a taboo subject, which makes people uncomfortable.  There is almost an impression if you don't tlak about it and pretend it won’t happen, then it won’t.

As a priest, death is very much part of my world. The more one encounters death, the more one treats it as a fact of life, not a brutal fact, so much as a natural fact. What is brutal is that we have no idea how our end will be. It is out of our control, and we do like to be in control.

We may wonder how we will be at the end. Who will be there with us? Will we be alone? Every time we say the Hail Mary Prayer we say, ‘Holy Mary , Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death’. It is a great reassurance to know that however and whenever we depart this life, Mary will be praying. We will not go alone.  

Furthermore, we have hope that God will be waiting, like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son, looking out for us while we are still a long way off. And Jesus in our gospel reading today says that he will not turn away anyone who comes to him and he will raise them up on the last day.

Death is what death is. What happens to us when we die will not be dictated by the preacher’s teaching or by our own wishful thinking. No one is really qualified to speak of death, because we have a one-sided view of it. We know what happens this side, but not on the other.The true nature of eternal life will only be revealed to us after we die. Perhaps death should be regarded as the last, great surprise of our life.

Life is a journey towards God. Some, the saints, get there in this life. Other lesser mortals take longer to reach him, it is they whom we remember today. In this life almost all of us are deficient in love and our love needs to grow to make us ready to be with him who is love.

As Christians we look beyond death to the life of the world to come. We look forward to the mysterious day of resurrection. That too will be a surprise, Jesus said that it will come like a thief in the night and we should always be ready. The resurrection might be seen as a great coming together, the consummation of creation. How it will be accomplished, what will happen we do not know, we must leave that to God.   

But meanwhile, our relationships continue with those whom we have love who have died. They are here with us, in our thoughts and in our hearts. They remain with us. We continue to pray for them, because we love them.

Death is but one moment of our lives, to be accepted and embraced, because it cannot be avoided. St Francis de Sales wrote:  ‘often fill your mind with thoughts of the great gentleness and mercy with which God our Saviour welcomes souls at death, if they have spent their lives in trusting him, and striven to love and serve him. Do your utmost to arouse in your self a love of heaven and the life of the blessed so you will weaken your dread of parting from this mortal and fleeting life.

God is with us in this life, let us hope and trust that we and all whom we remember today will be with him as it continues.