Last week I was in a second hand bookshop and I saw a book on the shelf with the title: `What to do after a death`. It looked to me like one of those books which is self-evidently a good idea. At least, in my own experience and from speaking with others this is one area of life where we often find ourselves at the limits of knowing what to do. I mean, this is not the kind of thing we learn much about in school and perhaps mercifully death isn`t the kind of thing we have to deal with every day.
But thinking about it I didn`t feel that having a book on hand would have been especially helpful on those occasions when someone close to me has died. Because it seems to me that it`s almost in the nature of things that death –even when anticipated- always manages catch us unawares. All those forms we have to fill in; the discussions with medical and other practitioners- even consultations with the Police – they always come with us firmly on the back foot and ill-prepared. Rather than turning to a book we often rely a great deal on others- or do the best we can.
Of course, there are some of us who know just what to do. Some of us always rise to the occasion. Whether out of natural inclination or as a way of avoiding the distress some people simply have a way of coping and getting to grips with the arrangements for the funeral and so on. So, I suppose my first thought really is to invite us to give thanks for those who have helped us at times like these. Perhaps, the person who gave us a lift to the Registry Office; the one who answered the phone that just kept on ringing or the neighbour who brought a pan of stew when going to the shops was the last thing on our mind.
Now I mention this because we heard about one of these practical people in our Gospel reading a few moments ago. He was a man named Joseph. He bravely went and asked Pontius Pilate if he could have the body of Jesus to give it a decent burial. You see, very often those who were crucified were simply left for the animals to deal with- there was no burial. So Joseph does, as a say, a brave and loving thing. But principally, let`s be clear, it`s a practical thing. He took care of the body and laid it in a tomb.
Now I`m stressing this point because what caught my eye about this account of Jesus death and burial is the contrast between the very practical Joseph and the women who, we`re told, also followed Jesus. Because for some reason these women are described as onlookers. All we`re told to begin with is that while Joseph got on with it all they `saw where the body was laid`.
And I think my point is that as we go on from here we`re given a sense that there is more to this experience of death and dying than making the arrangements. By that I mean, there`s more to it than coping and doing all that all that practical stuff. In other words, whilst Joseph has his honourable part to play so do the women and there`s something about them that makes me curious. We`ll turn to them in just a moment.
But first let me tell you a story. Many years ago I was called out in the middle of the night to the bedside of a man who was dying. He lived across the road from us. He and his wife had reached a good old age and we would often see them in the street. They were especially friendly to our two young children. I wasn`t at all surprised to be called because they were both Greek Orthodox and their faith was very important to them.
So I went over and I sat with him and his wife for what seemed a long time. The man was no longer conscious and as I recall we said very little. We just prayed and waited. But we weren`t alone because the person I remember most from that night and who made a great impression on me was the district nurse. This was the first time I had sat with someone as they died and I recall how, once he had died, the nurse very calmly and with great sensitivity cleaned and prepared his body. She clearly knew what to do.
Now, during this time I suppose I felt a bit like a spare limb. I wouldn’t have known what to do anyway but I just recall realising how all embracing this notion of being able to do something has become. And this experience made me think about what else was going on in that room besides the practical, dignified treatment of a dead person. I thought a lot about what I was there for and what it was like for the man`s wife just watching and waiting.
And this is where those women in our Gospel story come in. You see, after the Sabbath was over, following Joseph`s example, we see the women making their way to the tomb. Now they wanted to do the loving and practical thing. They went to adorn Jesus` body with spices. The point of this was to lessen the smell of decomposition for those others who would also place a body in that same tomb. And as they walked along they had another very practical concern about how they would get access to the body anyway because there was a huge stone across the entrance.
But curiously (and this is what stands out for me) they needn`t have worried. As the story makes clear, practicality wasn`t required. The work had already been done. The stone had already been removed. Jesus was not there. And so I asked myself what might we learn from this. If practicality… if `doing` something after the death wasn`t required of these women then what was?
Well what I noticed firstly was the number of times we`re told that these women `looked` or `saw`. It seems important to Luke that we take on board this idea of `observing` or perhaps becoming more aware. And then I noticed that that they had to enter the tomb. They had, for the second time as St. Luke tells us to `see the place where the body of Jesus was laid`. My point is that when someone dies, so often the one thing we don`t get to do is to really look at what`s going on. Perhaps the pain of grief would be too much for us anyway but when someone dies I can`t help thinking that we`re too easily swept up by things to do.
Yes, some of us as I say seem to thrive on the busyness as a way of coping. Some of us have no option and we have to put our own grieving on hold because we need, as we say, to be strong for others. But if we`re honest it`s worth checking out our expectations a little. I mean, even the funeral itself can become a more stressful occasion than it need be because of a prevailing anxiety to as we say `do` what he or she would have wanted. Sometimes if we`re not careful the sheer number of elements in a funeral service make it resemble something very busy. Almost an exercise in event management.
Which makes me a little concerned that gone are the days when- and I would love to invite more people to think like this…… Gone are the days when we would simply come into this place and be allowed the space just to grieve. Not to do anything but to be. In other words, I think we forget that- and this isn`t being morbid- part of the point of a funeral is that it is an invitation to do as the women did; to as it were `enter the tomb` and to look and listen.
You see I don`t think we take half as seriously as we should the way in which the wisdom of the church down the ages has given us a continued invitation to enter into the Easter story; to make it our own and let it give shape and coherence to what is an often bewildering experience.
That`s why Morning Prayer on Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter Day; the day when Jesus lay in the tomb is one of my favourite times of the year. The drama and tragedy of Good Friday is over and we`re all at Booths getting in the groceries. No, the drama and tragedy of Good Friday is over and there is stillness. And one of the readings we hear that morning- along with the account of the very practical Joseph- is the first one we heard this morning; from the Book of Job. It`s the account of a man who asked the big questions. And it seems to me that we`re missing out on something profoundly important if we busily deprive ourselves of opportunities to metaphorically enter the tomb; to look and listen.
You see beyond all the doing and the practical stuff; beyond the gratitude we feel to all the Josephs we know who have held our hand and helped us on the way, is what happened to those women. Just as they went on their way to make a simple act of affection and remembrance, so are we this morning. And this also is not about doing so much as looking and listening. They went into the tomb. They re-visited their experience and so do we.
And just like them we`re invited to hear someone speak. We don`t know who this person was who met them at the tomb. Frankly, he scared the life out of them. But look at what he said: “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’
Whoever this person was he wanted to remind them of the words of Jesus. And that`s what we come for. That`s what we listen out for as we make our act of remembrance and enter the tomb. Jesus had told them that would go ahead them. Jesus had promised them that they would see him….
Today we stop our busyness just long enough to listen. At the very least he is promising US that he will go ahead of us At the very least he is promising US that we shall see him.
The question as we come forward is, what else is he saying to us?