A funeral leads Ronald Blythe to reflect on our mortality
I AM sure that you will have noticed how, when we are in church — or, indeed, when we are alone — we continually dwell on some things, and never on others, if we can help it. It is not always that certain subjects are too painful or awkward to be thought about and analysed, but that we no longer quite know what to make of them; so we leave them alone. We say that, of course, we believe in them, but they are all a bit of a mystery; so please do not ask me to explain them.
During its long history, our faith has gone through periods when all the talk was of heaven or hell or sin or love or guilt or conviction or doubt, etc., and now and then, when all the talk is of immortality and immortal love, we sing “Immortal, invisible”.
Long ago, some of you will remember that there used to be little glass cases filled with porcelain flowers on graves. They were called immortelles — wrongly, of course; for they eventually corroded and fell to pieces under the wind and rain, although they certainly lasted much longer than real flowers. Among the porcelain flowers there would sometimes be porcelain hands, crossing each other in an everlasting grip, and porcelain texts about eternity. Although fragile, these sad, pretty grave ornaments often lasted as long as the inscriptions on the gravestones themselves.
At the Easter sepulchre, the angels said: “He is not here, he is risen.” When I take the funeral of a friend, as I did the other day, I tell myself, “He is not here.” This poses a question: where is he then? The formal answer is, in heaven. Not quite understanding what heaven is, I tell myself that my friend is with God, who certainly is in heaven, but it is here that everything to do with death and funerals becomes somehow irrelevant. Because they are part of mortality.
I am thinking of immortality. I and each one of us may dodge the implications captured in this brilliant tantalising word “immortality”, but the Bible never does. It is most explicit where this subject is concerned. “Our citizenship is in heaven,” St Paul says — a man who once boasted that he was a citizen of no mean city, meaning Rome.
Paul the Jew was proud of his dual nationality, but we, too, have dual nationality: our earthly land and our heavenly land, which is not a land at all, but is a mysterious country of the redeemed. Our mistake is to believe that our immortal life begins when our mortal life ends; when, in fact, these two states of our being, the temple and the eternal, run side by side.
The thought of death — that is, the annihilation of time — is the most painful of all our most painful thoughts, and it makes us miserable. We think of eternity as endless, a state in which there are no years, no centuries, no time. The Lord himself is timeless. Once, like us, he lived within time. He was born, he grew up, he worked, he was killed, and all within a few years. Young men and women are experiencing similar fates at this very moment. We hear about it on the news.
Then Christ entered timelessness, which he called “My father’s house”. It was the abode of truth and love. When his critics demanded further particulars of this other life, by questioning him about what would happen to certain earthly partnerships, he replied: There is no giving in marriage there.
Our concept of the eternal has been much confused by poets, and by our finding it so hard to imagine ourselves where time does not exist. Today is springlike, a day of joy of being alive, a day which men and women have celebrated long before the coming of Christ.
It brings me to the Christian concept of joy. If we find the word “immortal” hard to take at this time, so we do the word “joy”. Yet those who have experienced glimpses of heaven, as it were, have always done so in a state of joy. Joy is the climax of happiness. In both the Old and New Testaments, joy is a quality grounded on, and derived from, God. It is the mark of the individual Christian, and a mark, too, of Christian fellowship.
St Peter writes of a joy unspeakable. He means a happiness so great that words fail him. Each one of us has had our moments of unspeakable joy which seem to come upon us from nowhere. It is then that we glimpse the eternal. The poets strive to put this experience into words, perhaps acknowledging that, even when they were most successful, they still fall short of telling their readers what they actually saw and felt at this critical moment.