Ampleforth Abbey

14 December 2017

Talk III: Holy Saturday I

Almighty, ever-living God,
whose Only-Begotten Son
descended to the realm of the dead,
and rose from there to glory,
grant that your faithful people,
who were buried with him in baptism
may, by his resurrection, obtain eternal life.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

I have always found Holy Saturday a strange day. I have memories from boyhood of the weather on Good Friday always being absolutely terrible, so that we often arrived soaking wet at the Solemn Liturgy. Somehow that seemed appropriate. Equally, Easter Sunday would often be bright and warm, with a real sense of the beginning of Spring. But Holy Saturday always just seemed dull, overcast, uncertain, a day-in-between. It strikes me the same way every year, when we hear that passage from the ancient homily read at Matins:

“Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled”

God has died in the flesh. It is hard for us to make sense of this, hard to truly comprehend that the God who made us, who fashioned us from the dust of the earth, has, in Christ, shared that earth-drawn flesh with us himself, and then gone further, “even to accepting death, death on a cross”. What can this mystery say to us about who we are? What can this mystery say to us about our own dying?

At the beginning of our reflections this morning, I would like to share three short narratives from my own history. I hope you will be patient with me, but I think these little “stories from life” can say something important to us in the face of the mystery of Christian death.

I remember very clearly the first patient of mine who died when I was a junior doctor. I was just 24 and he was 76, and he had been admitted to my ward with a terminal illness. A fierce Protestant, and prominent member of the local Orange Order in Midlothian, he took one look at my name badge and said: “So you’re a Catholic, then” – my granddad was a Belfast Catholic and the name McBride is quite a common one in Belfast. He said it as if spitting, as if the word ‘Catholic’ itself was poison in his mouth. Not a happy beginning for either of us.

Over the next few weeks, as his condition deteriorated, we spent a lot of time together – me doing the sort of things all doctors did back then, taking blood, changing catheters, sorting out pain-relief and hydration through a drip – all tiny tasks, but ones that needed some kindliness to mask their basic brutality and invasiveness. Gradually, we began to talk together, even about religion and the mystery of life and death. We did not often agree, but still we talked. In the last few days, his renal failure took over and he lost full consciousness. His family were not well off, and the hospital was some way from home, so they were not always there until the very end. In those days, often in the middle of the night, I would pop in, just to check he was comfortable. Sensing I was there, he would grasp my hand and squeeze it, as if comforted to know that someone he knew was with him, even if we could no longer communicate. Often it would be hours before I could get away. Eventually, he died on my night off, with his wife holding his hand, just as he had so often held mine.

My second two stories are both about my father, who died in October of 2000, just over a year after my priestly ordination.

In September that year, Dad became ill, and was admitted to hospital with heart problems. This had happened before – my family definitely have “Glasgow genes” when it comes to coronary artery disease. I came down to see him just before he was discharged, and stayed at home for about 10 days. Just before he left the hospital, I had a private meeting with his doctors; being a medic myself, they were a little more frank with me than they had been with him, and they told me just how badly damaged his heart had been. Later, when we got home, I sat down with Mum and Dad and explained to them what the likely outcome would be – that is, that he would probably have one further big heart attack, but that no one could predict when that would be – it could a week, a month, 5 years or 10. Both seemed a little saddened, but asked what questions they wanted to and we got on with life. I left a few days later to return to the Abbey. I still remember wishing Dad “Goodbye” with a hug on the steps of Marks & Spencer, him surrounded by shopping (as usual) and waiting for a taxi as I went off to the station. 3 days later, Mum phoned in the middle of the night to say that he had just died in her arms. It seems he had gone out shopping again that morning, driving out (which he wasn’t yet supposed to do) to get all the stuff he knew Mum most liked, had shared her favourite supper with her and my youngest brother and then – around 1am – just collapsed and was gone. He was 58.

The last little vignette occurred the day before dad’s funeral. We had gone to the undertakers to say ‘Goodbye’, and the four of us were left alone in the room where dad’s body was, all neatly dressed in his coffin. All of sudden, my middle brother pulled a small wooden zebra out of his pocket, and tucked it into dad’s breast pocket, then kissed him gently. It’s a bit of a family joke, since he had been very slow at talking (partly because I did it for him) and the first thing he was reputed to have said was not “Mama” or “Papa”, but “Zebra” – heaven alone knows why, but we’re a strange family. My youngest brother then pulled out his Swiss Army knife, which dad was always in the habit of borrowing, and popped it into his jacket, adding gruffly “You always kept borrowing this, you better take it now, you might need it…” before he too kissed him. (The pocket knife had a corkscrew on it, not a bad thing to have when you’re going to the feast in the kingdom!). Both Mum and I just stood there, both stunned but both deeply moved.

I know that I am immensely privileged, especially perhaps for someone living in the 21st century, for I have seen a lot of deaths. For two years, first as student then as teacher, I worked in a large room in the Anatomy Dept. of my Medical School which contained 100 cadavers, the bodies of 100 generous people who had given themselves to help young doctors like me learn their trade. I worked for two months in the Forensic Medicine dept, and carried out some 50 post mortem examinations, including two murders, several severe road accidents and many other more “usual” but unexpected deaths. As a young doctor, the occasional death of my patients, as already mentioned, was part of the job, though people’s attitudes to it varied immensely. Finally, as a monk, I have seen 43 members of the community die since I joined Ampleforth in 1991. Death is no stranger to me, and in some ways, though it remains something of a mystery, it seems to hold few terrors.

Reflecting on my experience, and on the last of those three little stories, I think one of the most profound conclusions I come to as a Christian in the face of death, is a profound and perhaps paradoxical sense of continuity. When my brothers gave my dad those little gifts, they were expressing something very deep. In an unspoken way, they were acknowledging that dad was still dad, no matter what. They were expecting him to “recognise” those gifts, not as some sort of propitiation offering, like the coin in the mouth of the dead in the Classical world, needed to pay the ferry-fare across the Styx, but as signs of the ongoing history of our family, a history in which dad was and is still a key player. Those gifts were signs of an unbroken and shared history, which would and does continue. Above all, I think they expected him to be amused, that somehow, watching us doing what seemed utterly foolish, he would enjoy the joke. There is a very deep sense there that – although we all knew that the physical body lying there was not going to spontaneously re-animate itself and say “Thank you” – that dad was just as present to us as he always had been.

I do not think this sense of “continuity” in death is illusory – I think it is a profoundly Christian perception. If the death and resurrection of Jesus means anything at all, then it most certainly means that death is not the end, not the radical annihilation of personhood which our contemporary society most fears when it considers death. The Jesus who said “This is my Body, which is for you” on Maundy Thursday night, and who gave that body up to death for our sake on Good Friday, and whose body rested in the tomb on Holy Saturday, is the very same Jesus, the very same Body, the very same person in the strongest sense of that word, as greeted Mary Magdalene in the garden on Sunday morning, and who joined the apostles in the Upper Room that same evening. Death is not the end.

Indeed I think we can legitimately go further. This profound fact of continuity, this new continuity which is heralded and guaranteed by Jesus’ own death and resurrection, is a continuity of discipleship. When Jesus says to us “Follow me”, there is no “sunset clause” in that invitation, at least on his part. He does not say “Follow me, and then we shall see how things go” or “Follow me, for the time being”. No. His call is rather simpler, but so much the more radical for being so, and it is a call which transcends our mere mortality. When he says “Follow me”, he is calling us to walk the path that he has already walked, as the forerunner and pioneer of our faith, he is calling us to walk on the way of the Cross, he is calling us to follow him through death, not round it. It is our choice whether we will follow him or not. If we are truly to be his disciples, then we must be prepared for the whole of that journey, and that journey definitely includes our own death. As he says in John’s gospel: “If anyone loves me, he will serve me, and where I am, my servant will be there too; if anyone serves me, my Father will honour him” (Jn.12).

This radical continuity in our discipleship is not unfamiliar to us, although this way of phrasing it might be. It is what we mean by the “communion of saints”. I suspect that many of us, when we hear that phrase and when and if we ever think about it, are probably constrained by the imagery of the Apocalypse, and the religious art which has flowed from it. We might think of the saints gathered round the throne of God, each with palm branches, or crowns of gold, or mitres, or bowls of incense, all worshipping the Lamb who was slain for us. There is nothing at all wrong with that, except that it is only part of the story. As an image, it captures something of the truth, but not the whole of it, for it is too much an “other world” view, too much disparate from our experience here to be wholly helpful.

If, alongside this partial view, we think of the communion of saints as the communion of all Christ’s disciples – the Church militant and the Church triumphant – perhaps we get a clearer view. For the saints are not those whose discipleship is ended; they stand in the same fundamental relationship to Christ as we do – we are all his disciples, whether living or dead. The saints are not demi-gods, not divinised beings like Hercules or Aesculapius in ancient Greco-Roman mythology, they are the human disciples of Christ who have followed him most faithfully. One of the strongest intuitions of the early Church was to recognise in the martyrs those whose lives had taken on the pattern of the life and death of Jesus himself, and – remaining human just as Christ himself remains incarnate though glorified – they were acceptable to the Father, since he recognised in their faces the face of his own Beloved Son. The early Christians recognised the martyrs as normal people whose lives had been transformed by extraordinary grace, but also recognised the common link of discipleship which still joins us and them in one, single Body, the Church. It is perhaps no surprise, then, to find that in every Eucharistic Prayer since the earliest days of the Church’s liturgy, that immediately after the commemoration of Christ’s action, his definitive: “This is my Body, which is for you” that we pray with and for all the members of that body – the saints in heaven, the living and the faithful departed – one single body of disciples united with Christ their head.

Returning to the little stories with which we began, I would like to focus briefly on that second event. I can remember only too well that last hug with dad on the steps of M & S, but what is strange is to consider what I think it meant to him. I believe he knew he was dying, as many people do; I think he knew it would be the last time we saw each other. In some sense, I think that I – his eldest son, the doctor and the priest – in that talk with him and Mum about his future had given him a clarity which he felt he could accept, not just information but knowledge about what would happen in the fullness of time. In a sense, I think he was looking to me for some sign which would allow him to take the next step in his journey – in effect, I was giving him permission to die. I do not mean that in any negative sense. Rather, I think he needed some help in accepting that his mortality was OK, that his dying was OK, that he wasn’t trying to duck the issue of life, that what he faced was real. Looking back on it, I am absolutely amazed at the way he did accept that – not with resignation, not with appalled fear, but with a festal supper with my Mum and my little brother, in a sense, with his very own Last Supper. It is as if, when we looked into each other’s eyes, surrounded by shopping, there was a silent understanding between us of the path he had set out on, a path I could not yet follow alongside him, but a path which I had, in some way, blessed for him.

In our modern world, acceptance of our own mortality, acceptance of our limitedness and finiteness is very hard. As a society, we are greedy for life, greedy for experience, greedy for control, greedy for everything. Sometimes that is good – there is an eagerness, an energy, an ambition to be everything we can be – but there are negatives too. Aside from the obvious problems of commercial and financial greed, the so-called consumerism which besets Western culture, there are deeper problems. Our greed for life leads us often to deny the pattern of our own human nature – when young, we reject the limitations of childhood and long for the so-called “freedom” of adulthood, when older, we resent the gradual changes of age and do our best to remain eternally youthful, eternally fashionable, eternally “with it”. When even the threat of illness comes, we look more and more towards medicine and technology to be able to spot it early and fix it quickly. When that fails, we look for someone to blame – be that the NHS, the postcode lottery, government cuts. We demand our “rights” to get what we want, what we see others having, what we feel we deserve from life, and heaven help us if anyone gets in our way. Above all, we reject death as the ultimate affront to our desires – or at least we reject the idea of our own death in that way – unless we are one of those who feel they have the absolute right to control not only their life but the time of their dying.

I spoke briefly yesterday about the “God of the Philosophers” – the god we construct for ourselves by looking at our own qualities and seeking to impose them in a maximally-enhanced way on the ruler of the cosmos. I spoke also of some of the moral difficulties such a philosophy can bring about if we actually believe that this is what the God of Jesus Christ is like. I fear that there is something of a similar problem when we consider the notion of “eternal life”. I suspect that when we hear that term, we do not really think very much about it, and if we do, we probably consider it in terms of an infinite prolongation of the sort of life we lead now, or – hopefully – of a better standard of living which will be infinitely prolonged and without the risk of ageing or illness. I think we pursue “immortality” rather than “eternal life” – an undying persistence of what we know, rather than a radically new creation.

I think Christ’s death should make us re-evaluate this notion. Jesus’ free choice to become Man meant choosing the whole package, meant becoming like us in all things but sin. That means that from the very first instant of the Incarnation, just as from the moment of our conception, Jesus faced death. Like us, he faced the whole pattern of human life, and the endpoint of that for all of us is death. Jesus is not like Zeus, play-acting the human to have a bit of fun and then returning unscathed to Olympus. No, Jesus freely chose to join us where we are, with everything that this entails. Like us, he did not know the “what” or the “when” of his death until much later, that only became starkly clear to him towards the end, and it was a vision which filled him with horror, as we know from his prayer in Gethsemane. Yet he accepted this, trusting only in the Father’s love.

I think this is an important thing for us to grasp. Like Jesus, we have to accept the fact that our death is part of our human nature, part of who we are. We have to accept that we are finite in our nature as we see it now. But equally, alongside this acceptance, we need to remember, as we have already noted, that Jesus teaches us that our physical death is only a part of the journey of our discipleship – a difficult part undoubtedly, but only a part in our journey. It is perhaps paradoxical that when we can accept this, we are freed from the fear of death which its rejection engenders, we are freed to cherish life, life from the one who came that we might have life, and have it in all its fullness. We become those who no longer “sit in darkness and in the shadow of death”.

And what of that third story, the one with which we began? I think there are three things to stress from that brief narrative – the importance of reconciliation, of generosity and of love. For my dying patient, those last three weeks or so was a real experience of reconciliation. It may be that no Catholic had ever given him the time of day before our meeting, or that he genuinely believed that somehow my papistry would somehow contaminate his soul, or just that his upbringing – like my own – had left him with some ill-founded prejudices that were difficult to shake off. Nevertheless, in that brief period before his death there was a real reconciliation, a real growing together, founded simply on generosity. There was nothing heroic about my medical service, I was just doing my job, yet – at the heart of any doctor’s actions should be a real respect for the other, a real valuing of their dignity, perhaps even a recognition that the body they treat is a unique and fragile creation, worthy of all they can offer. For myself, and for any Christian doctor of course, there is the added element that we recognise that broken and diseased body to be the body of Christ himself, of that same stuff as He is, an icon of his presence. That he died knowing that he was loved, not only by his family but by someone he first thought of as an enemy, is one of the memories I most treasure from my past career.

In the funeral service, during the final prayer of commendation, we read: “keep us mindful that life is short, and the hour of death unknown”. It is an important phrase, one which echoes St Benedict’s instruction to his monks that they “should keep death daily before their eyes”. Neither of these statements is said to be morbid, to engender fear; rather they are tools for us by which we can re-order the priorities of our life. One of the corollaries of our acceptance of our own mortality is that we have to make a choice. Either we can, like so many in our society, decide that life is indeed short, so “I must grab what I can while I can”. But there is another option. We can recognise that life is short, and so use the time we have for others. We can decide that there is too little time for prejudice, too little time for hurt pride, too little time for making excuses or explaining ourselves, and so commit ourselves daily to the path of forgiveness, conscious that we ourselves will have much that needs forgiving. We can commit ourselves to following the prodigal Christ, who squandered all his Father’s riches on us who did not deserve them, and daily follow the path of generosity, whether of our goods, our talents or just simply our time. Above all, perhaps, we can commit ourselves to the path of love, following the example of him who said “Greater love hath no one than this: that they lay down their life for their friends”, and who lived out the words he spoke. By this I do not mean the flimsy, romantic love pedalled in the adverts, but rather the harder, more demanding work of love – the bedpan that needs emptying, the nappy that needs changing, the 2am feed, the care shown in dressing the elderly relative who can no longer help themselves, the hour you do not really have seemingly “wasted” with the sick or dying person who does not want to be alone.

Perhaps two images from the gospels will provide us with a conclusion to this meditation. In Mt.14, we hear the second of two accounts of Jesus walking on the waters of the Sea of Galilee; in this story, Peter calls out to Jesus as he goes before them, and says: “Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you across the water”, and Jesus said: “Come”. It is only once he is out of the boat and aware of the void beneath his feet that Peter starts to sink, and at once Jesus takes his hand, and leads him on. There will come a day for all of us, at the end of this phase of our discipleship, when we too will have to step from the boat with Peter, and face the void beneath us at the calling of the Lord. But, like Peter, we too can be sure that he will take us by the hand, that we will have nothing to fear – for that hand will not let us go again.

The second image is also from the seaside, this time at the shore of the Sea of Tiberias (Jn 21). Perhaps I am being overly optimistic, but when my time comes, when I too have to make the same joyful acceptance of my mortality that my father made before me, I will hear the voice of Jesus speaking to me in judgement, echoing that conversation which once he had with Peter: “Oswald, son of James, do you love me? Have you fed my lambs? Oswald, son of James, do you love me? Have you looked after my sheep? Oswald, son of James, do you love me? Have you fed my sheep?”

I hope I can be as brave as Peter in my answers, with not too many “buts” and excuses. I hope that, after Jesus has heard me out, he will say to me again, as he has said to me so often before, and just as he said in his last words to Peter: “Follow me”.

 

Lord God, whose days are without end

and whose mercies beyond counting,

keep us mindful that life is short and the hour of death unknown.

Let your Spirit guide our days on earth

in the ways of holiness and justice,

that we may serve you, in union with the whole Church,

sure in faith, strong in hope, perfected in love.

And, when our earthly journey is ended,

lead us rejoicing into your kingdom,

where you live for ever and ever.