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The Mystery of Death

22nd Sunday after Trinity BCP (Remembrance Sunday)

12 November 2006 11:00 | Fr. Roderick Leece

There are always mixed feelings on Remembrance Sunday when we honour and salute courage, heroism, steadfastness, sacrifice and generosity for our country…but at the same time ponder the enormous waste of war. The loss of life…families robbed of love…society deprived of the gifts and skills of the dead…economies diverted to fuel the needs of war. Of course there is a certain ambiguity. 'Oh What a Lovely War' was the first production I was involved in (musically) at school in the mid 70s - and this musical satire on the futilities of the 1st World War (and, by extension, against war in general) was a surprising hit - Richard Attenborough's film was released in 1969. Tony Blair was 16 at the time. The main thing I recall was the huge distance between politicians and generals waging war from a comfortable but ridiculous distance, and the poor wretched foot soldiers literally on the ground…or should I say just a few feet under…wet, cold and shell-shocked in the trenches. Things have changed now, in that clearly the generals, and even the Chief of Defence Staff are firmly identified with the men and women who have been forced to wage war by out of touch politicians, without the support of country. Questions are asked.

In this month of Remembrance within the Christian calendar, and particularly as we remember those who gave their today for our tomorrow, this is a good time to question if, or what, we believe about life after death? You see, one of the consequences of the two world wars was that the flood of deaths led to a rather banal idea of life after death.

We can see this in the flourishing of spiritualism after the first war. The life of the dead was perceived in terms of the technology of the time. The dead could talk over the telephone, as it were, with the medium as an operator, connecting the calls. Yet with the reality went a certain lack of mystery. The imagined spirit world was just a happy version of our own world, without the pain. "It's very nice here," the dead would say, as if phoning from a seaside resort. As it happens, my mother was a spiritualist, and my grandmother a medium, who founded a spiritualist church in Bath. Granny welcomed Haile Selassie the Emperor of Ethiopia to tea during his five years exile in Bath, and during their conversations, my mother told the story of Gran going into a trance, and speaking what allegedly turned out to be some mysterious ancient Abyssinian language. No wonder Haile Selassie fled back to Addis Ababa in 1941!

During the 2nd World War another way of trying to soften the pain of death was found: a host of films about life after death designed to reassure troops and civilians. 'Here comes Mr Jordan' in 1941, 'A Guy named Joe' in 43, and 'Blithe Spirit' in 1945 are all examples. The idea was to see death as a blip in our ongoing existence, something hardly noticed as we proceed in our happy lives. Of course it's understandable that in time of war people should feel tempted to avoid thinking too much about the reality of death. "Nothing is going to happen, nothing will hurt you," cooed nanny in the nursery as she tucked the children into bed. "In the morning you will wake up in the same bright nursery you fell asleep in." Let's pretend. But that's not what the Church teaches.

Death is always a trial, the wages of sin, and never easy. Jesus suffered an agonising death and was buried. We endure something terrible in our own death, and the mere fact of death is terrible in any circumstance, let alone as a result of human conflict. The natural longing seems to be for a continuance of this life and often people cannot conceive of something different.

But in death God calls us home to himself…it is the end of our earthly pilgrimage, and the Church encourages us to prepare ourselves in prayer for the hour of our death…the Hail Mary seeks intercession for the same moment. And after death, the mystery of blessed communion with God and all who are in Christ we call heaven…beyond all understanding and description…though not beyond hope.

Scripture speaks of it in images - life, light, peace, wedding feast, wine of the kingdom, the Father's house, the heavenly Jerusalem, paradise…and yet at the same time 'no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him'.
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