I cannot read the haunting lament of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas without hearing his voice from an old recording:
Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
A gorgeous, warm, bright spring day brought out the tourists in droves yesterday – baring substantial amounts of unsunned flesh. Driving through the Dales, it looked and felt like summer was on its way (so, it’ll probably snow next week). The beauty and the nascent new life bursting from trees, flowers and hedgerows seemed incongruous, however, with what I was going on to do later in the afternoon.
The excellent and wonderful Marie Curie Cancer Care trust has moved its annual bereavement service in Bradford from October to March. At least this aligns the appearance of real daffodils with the symbol of the Marie Curie charity. Everyone in the congregation of a couple of hundred had two things in common: (a) they were bereaved in the last eighteen months and (b) they are mortal. The service creates space and a vocabulary for loss and grieving and thinking about our mortality – in a place that gently reminds us of it anyway. For over 700 years people have worshipped, lived and died in this place. On the way in to begin the service I noticed a memorial plaque on the cathedral wall which poignantly recorded the deaths of the three infant children of a bereft couple in the early nineteenth century. This cathedral has witnessed the living, suffering, celebrating and dying of generations of people like us.
Cutting through the potential verbiage to the heart of the matter, I tried to account for Christian hope in a way anyone could understand it. Based on Revelation 21 three things seemed pertinent:
1. Christian hope is rooted in the God who comes to us. We talk about us ‘going to heaven’, but it is the other way round. In the Genesis 3 narrative it is God who goes walking in the garden in the cool of the day asking ‘Adam, where are you?’ – the same searching question that confronts every human being. Adam and Eve do not seek him out; he seeks them out. God makes the first move. In the Incarnation it is the same – God comes among us. And the imagery of Revelation 21 tells the same story: the heavenly city comes down from heaven to earth, not vice versa.
2. The resurrection is key to Christian hope. Jesus did not spontaneously come back to life in some great act of resuscitation: as Paul notes, ‘God raised Christ from the dead’. And this points to…
3. … Christian hope is not located in a scenario or a formula or schedule of what happens when the body closes down. Christian hope is rooted in the person of God. That’s all. I turst and hope in God, not heaven or some expectation of what happens after death. I trust in the God who raised Christ from the dead – and the rest is detail that doesn’t need to bother us very much.
The old Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, put it like this:
God is. God is as he is in Jesus. So there is hope.
The great German theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, put it like this:
God is our happiness. God is our torment. God is the wide space of our hope.
Which, of course, is the beginning of a conversation and not the final word.