“When you`ve got to go” – thoughts on making a good death

I think it was the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, who once said that “Where there is death there is holy ground and the preacher must tread with care”. Quiet so and one of the reasons we tread with such care is because in the face of death our humanity is so utterly exposed. Just as for instance when speaking of the battlefield we sometimes rather colloquially say, “There are no atheists in fox holes” we are well aware of how raising the matter of death can put us in touch with all manner of anxieties, fears and painful memories and one can easily hurt or be misunderstood. So this might be where I ask your forgiveness in advance. And one is also very conscious, depending on the line one takes, that when touching on such deep seated things it`s possible that even a quite legitimate reflection on eternal truths ends up as a crude exercise in stoking fear, manipulation and control; that, I would most certainly wish to avoid. So treading carefully where does this lead us?

Well, firstly, it`s sometimes said that your religion is what you do with your solitude. In other words, it`s about the person you are when nobody else is looking. And perhaps the `test` if that`s the correct word of the authenticity of our faith is how far we have found God present in that place where we are simply ourselves, without mask or pretence; the place where might find ourselves wrestling with our mortality. Perhaps that`s why Jesus says, “When you pray, go to your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6.6). I mean, in that context we can`t be anything other than honest.

And secondly, if we`re going to find some guide to help us reflect on these things we couldn`t have a better example than Simeon. We heard about him this morning in our Gospel (Luke 2.22-40). I irreverently describe this as the “Gospel for the Saga generation” because we also hear about Anna the elderly widow. But notice, it`s Simeon who declares in this passage that having seen the Christ he can now die in peace. The big thing that strikes me about Simeon is that we`re talking here of someone whose entire life has been spent focussed on what God is about. He`s called “righteous and devout- looking for consolation of Israel”.

In other words, we don`t get the sense that Simeon was someone who saw life as something to be used or otherwise expended. Not for him a life of hedonism and the exercise of self will. His life was lived as a gift and he had a task (and here it came to its fruition) he was to wait, to welcome and celebrate the presence of God.

What I take from this picture of Simeon is a sense that our attitude to our death is going to be formed by the way we have lived our life. By that, I don`t mean the things we`ve done or achieved so much as our underlying attitudes; the “what`s really going on when no one else is looking”; or what our `honest to God`, when the chips are down priorities and values are.

You see Simeon`s gift was the ability to see himself as caught up in something larger than his own life span, and to patiently persist with the sense that he had a part to play in those purposes even in his latter years. It`s the difference between on the one hand living what Pope Francis has called a `self-referential life`- where `we`ll be the judge of that thank you`, and where the great “I” is at the centre of things and on the other hand a life focussed on the praise, reverence and service of God- the real purpose of our existence; that bigger canvas to which Simeon points us.

We don`t like to dwell on it but these are the eternal truths to which the preachers have pointed. They ask us to remember our created-ness and mortality. “Teach us to number our days” says the writer of one of the Psalms “that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps 90.12) and elsewhere: “Lord let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is” (Ps 39.4) A lot of people would think of this as a bit morbid but the scriptures teach us that this isn`t a matter of living under some kind of threat. On the contrary it`s a matter of wisdom and of living the truth of who we are.

You see, the bigger picture of which we are part is one of security not fear: The letter to Hebrews describes Christ as the one who came “to deliver those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” (Heb. 2.15) And in the book of Deuteronomy we`re told, “The eternal God is your dwelling place and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Dt 33.27).

And this is the other thing about Simeon. We`re told, “The Holy Spirit rested on him” (Luke 2.25) For me, he`s being described as someone who was at home with God and the things of God: to repeat `the eternal God was his dwelling place` and putting it bluntly, he wasn`t leaving his homework to the end. He already knew the God who was calling him to glory. But that`s the point isn`t it? We know all too well how the self-referential life has left little time or attention for the things of the Spirit and therefore intimations of mortality come as a shock, an affront and it must be said for some, `a rude interruption to their rather busy schedule`.

And this is what Jesus describes in his parable of the rich man who foolishly thinks his barns full of produce will give him ultimate security. (Luke 12.18). Jesus speaks unguardedly about the consequences for those who face death and are not `rich towards God`. The mercy is that in their latter days and hours some folk do begin to get it, but O the pain in the meantime; the confusion and bewilderment. And all of this isn`t helped in our day by the particular challenges we face. I mean, sometimes the process of coming to terms with where we are and saying our farewells and all the rest is curtailed anyway by the (sometimes) mixed blessings of medical science.

Now, we must really take our hats off to the hospice movement who do so much good in this regard but it has to be said that not only is the bigger canvas on which we live our lives drowned out by the desire to live life according to our own lights (which means trying to maintain that adolescent illusion of immortality) but our final days are so often marked on the one hand, by isolation from community (with the opportunity to forgive and be forgiven) and on the other, the kind of medication which ensures we`re insensible to prayer and reflection.

This, and I know I`m crudely simplifying, is all too often the way of 21st century death. So let`s not beat around the bush. This is the path we will all tread. My question I think is whether we will do so as Christian people?

For me Simeon gives us two pointers. Firstly, he says: “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace…. according to your Word”; or to put it another way, `I can die in peace because you keep your promises`. What immediately comes to my mind are what St Paul wrote to Timothy just before he met his execution. He said: “I know the one in whom I have put my trust and am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him (1 Tim. 1.12)You see, I wonder where you will turn, what words of scripture, what pictures, promises and Biblical passages will you draw on to help you perhaps in what might be dark hours alone in your room, so that you might allow the Lord to be present to you?

Again, I`m well aware that not everyone takes up my occasional invitations to be at the foot of the cross on Good Friday and respectfully, that is your privilege. But can I equally respectfully ask how will you go through your own Gethsemane without the aid of Christ? How will you learn to say, `Father forgive` as you come to look back on your life`s experiences? How will you hand over your loved ones to the care of another? How will your life and all you have attempted have its “It is finished”? How will you learn to say, “Father, into your hands I commend my Spirit”, if Christ and his word have not become part of you and if the eternal God has not become your dwelling place?

But secondly, the picture that stays with me is of Simeon simply taking the child Jesus into his arms. Let me invite you to ponder for a moment how evocative and how emotionally stirring that picture is. For any of us who have been parents or grandparents, aunts and uncles- without a shred of sentimentality -there is something here that stirs something deep within us. Simeon took Christ into his arms and blessed God. This is a picture of faith: faith as a relationship. This is faith of the heart not the head. This is not the intellectual, too clever-by-half picture of faith: it`s faith as an embrace that touches us to the core. It`s the `who we are when no-one`s looking`; it`s all there is. It`s us embracing him for sure but only until we realise it is we who have been embraced by him all along.

I`ve often wondered why in time of great sickness or as the time of our death approaches so few of us take up the opportunity of receiving Holy Communion at home. It`s not just that we weren`t brought up that way or belong to a different tradition. No when someone says “Don`t call- I`m not feeling well enough” we need to kindly ask whether we`ve really understood what`s on offer: the opportunity to take Christ into our arms; into the palms of our hands (as we do at every eucharist) to become wrapped up in the embrace of faith.

I sat by the bedside of a man shortly before he died. He was still conscious and able, rather disarmingly to tell me that (having dutifully followed his wife to church all these years) he wasn`t sure he himself really believed any of it. Knowing me I suspect I made some rather bland reply but my abiding  memory is of how difficult it was at that moment to direct this man away from faith as a `series of propositions`, to `faith as a relationship` – the embrace of God. So, here`s the rub: whilst we cannot predict the context or circumstances of our death perhaps we might pray with the desire to be `at home` with God and the things of God as Simeon? To know the eternal God as our dwelling place, that we may depart in peace to rise in glory?


One thought on ““When you`ve got to go” – thoughts on making a good death

  1. Hi David, I find the picture you paint of communion at home in the final days very comforting. Thank you.

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