The Gentle Remembrance of Death
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, November 22, 2015
The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (12:16-21)
The Gospel reading is about the remembrance of death and how we try and avoid it. Since we are surrounded by reminders of death all the time it is harder than you think. From the death of loved ones to the changing of the seasons, to the changes in our health, to the simple experience of falling asleep at night the overarching reality of death is all around us. We have to work very hard, like the Rich Man, to distract ourselves from the fact that death is walking with us as a companion each step of the way and will come at a time we do not know. In James 4:14 we read this:
“For what is your life? It is a vapor that appears a little while and then vanishes away.”
Here’s another good one for you from the Indian Epic the Mahabarata.
"What is the most wondrous thing in the world, Yudhisthira?"
And Yudhisthira replied, "The most wondrous thing in the world is that all around us people can be dying and we don't realize it can happen to us."
St. Maximos the Confessor wrote that the fear of death, I would add also the denial of death, is the root cause of all sin. The fear of death and the denial of our own impermanence is the heart of all our suffering.
The sorrows of life are vivid reminders of death. Each time we are hurt or insulted or disappointed we feel the sting of mortality. Every trauma we experience, as simple and seemingly insignificant as it may be, leaves a wound that, if neglected, can haunt us for the length of our days.
Another reminder is that suffering is universal. I came across this beautiful poem by the Somali poet Warsan Shire. Her words moved me deeply.
later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole
where does it hurt?
God came into this world to connect with our suffering and our joys in the most intimate of ways. He became one of us. He became as Isaiah writes, “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” Love shares the suffering of its beloved and that cannot be effectively done at a distance. He took upon himself our suffering so that we may do the same.
The remarkable truth then is that when we connect with our own suffering we are connecting with God’s for as the hymn says, “his wounds are yet visible above.” If we refuse to touch our suffering, then we are also refusing to embrace his. The truth is that much of life involves suffering. To leave it out of our love is to cut out a significant part of our experience. That is a recipe for more suffering, not less. Jesus is “the least of the brethren” within us and without us and we must bring love to them all, for each one of them is Christ and each one of them is us.
This is beautifully expressed in our practice of the Eucharist. Into the chalice filled with the wine to become his blood, the portion of bread called the Lamb is divided and then broken into pieces and placed in the wine. Altogether, united in God, the Lord’s very flesh and blood. The division represents his crucifixion and our fragmentation. The descent of the Holy Spirit represents the heavenly fire of joy. The chalice is the cup of joy and of sorrow, of life and of death, all enfolded in grace, all made whole, all welcomed in the one great unity which is God’s life. And we are called to drink of it to recognize what has been done for us in Christ and to make manifest the unity he has accomplished. “Drink of it all of you!”
Here’s another little poem I memorized from Donaldson’s CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT, “Drink of loss ‘til it is done, ‘til solitude has comes and gone, and silence is communion.” We must drink the whole cup.
How do we even begin to connect with the truth about death in our lives so that we are prepared when it comes? We can do it in small ways. Jesus says in Luke 16:10, "If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones.” Small things done with faith lead to great things done with faith -- to live in faith and to die in faith is a testament to the truth that all things in life and death unfold in God.
There is no reason to sit around and conjure up morbid images. We can incorporate our remembrance of death in a very simple way. By letting each moment come in with full acceptance and letting it go out without regret. Each time we let come and let go is like a little death and resurrection, an embrace of life and of death at the same time. This is a function of mindfulness. Anthony Bashir and I coined a phrase to describe it. We call it “sacred mindfulness.”
Letting go in the little things of life, moment by moment, helps to make letting go at death less painful. The aging process as hearing and sight and heart and kidneys show signs of wear and tear is a blessing in disguise - a gradual, natural, involuntary "letting go" as we accommodate to the constantly changing reality of life and death. "All things must pass, none of life's chains can last. So I must be on my way to face another day. Now the darkness only stays at nighttime. In the morning it will fade away. Daylight is good at arising at the right time. It’s not always gonna be this grey.” (George Harrison)
Letting come and letting go is the heart of the spiritual life and a key to psychological well-being. It is an act of faith in the love and omnipresence of God to believe that what comes after we let go of this moment will be followed by grace over and over again in the next, no matter what shape it takes. And then life, lived with sacred mindfulness, becomes a miraculous journey to be met with curiosity, courage and compassion rather than a depressing pilgrimage to a fearful end.
Death is always followed by resurrection. The old is always replaced by the new. Daylight comes at the right time. That is our faith. “Lay up treasures in heaven,” the Lord says. Practice letting go of the attachments that cause your suffering.