It was Mark Twain who said, “let us endeavour so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry”.
Some of you may know that Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, long before he established the Nobel Peace Prize. What led him to establish the prize was something that happened one morning in 1888. Nobel found himself reading his own obituary in his morning newspaper. It was a simple administrative error: his brother had died, but it was his obituary that was printed by mistake. Anyone would be disturbed under the circumstances, but to Alfred the shock was overwhelming because he saw himself as the world saw him. The “Dynamite King,” the great industrialist who had made an immense fortune from explosives. This, as far as the general public was concerned, was the entire purpose of Alfred’s life. None of his true intentions to break down the barriers that separated people, and his ideas for peace, were recognized or given serious consideration. He was simply a merchant of death. And for that alone he would be remembered. As he read the obituary with horror, he resolved to make clear to the world the true meaning and purpose of his life. This could be done through the final disposition of his fortune. So, he bequeathed an endowment of five annual prizes for outstanding contributions in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace (the sixth category of economics was added later). This was the expression of his life’s ideals, and ultimately would be why we would remember him. The result was the most valuable of prizes given to those who had done the most for the cause of world peace, the Nobel Peace Prize.
We might think, on Palm Sunday, of crowds calling Jesus “King” and shouting “Hosanna”, but remember that what we’re handed is not a plain palm branch or leaf, but a cross. We know that beyond the superficially positive message of the crowd, the same crowd are calling “crucify him” within just a few days. I believe the first person to say that the two certainties of life were death and taxes was Daniel Defoe, in 1726. “In the midst of life, we are in death”, as the old Prayer Book puts it. Today may have elements of celebration about, but the shadow of death cannot be avoided completely.
That’s why we read on the same chapter of John’s gospel this morning. This really is an extraordinary passage. John tells the Palm Sunday events in an extraordinary way that seems to blend Jesus’ forthcoming death and his resurrection at almost every turn. Jesus arrives in Jerusalem with the story of the recent raising of Lazarus buzzing in everyone’s ears, a sign whose public impact in turn prompts the Pharisees to even greater opposition to him, and so, ironically, adds to the momentum leading towards Good Friday.
Jesus’ response to the Greeks’ desire to ‘see him’ is to speak of the hour of his being ‘glorified’ as having now arrived. But as we know, the climax of his being glorified will, strangely, be his death. Jesus uses the picture of the grain of wheat as the simplest yet greatest parable of all: the necessity of its disappearing, burial and dying to itself if it is to bear fruit. It’s not despite, but because of, the seed’s dying to itself that there will be a harvest of life. Jesus went on to use this double meaning of his being ‘lifted up’: on a cross, and then later in rising to new life.
According to the Gospel, then, death is defeated not by being denied, or the pretence that it is illusory. It’s very real. It’s not, however, more real than God, and God has chosen death as the way of revealing his own eternal life of love. So death does not have the last word. It’s God who will have the last word.
It strikes me that there are two ways of looking at death. One of them is expressed in a famous poem that many clergy hate, but are asked to read frequently at funerals:
Death is nothing at all. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. There is absolute and unbroken continuity. What is this death but a negligible accident? All is well. Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!
I think I’m uneasy about it because it seems to perpetuate an illusion, preventing people from grieving by allowing them to cling to an unreality when really they need to let go, like Miss Haversham in her wedding dress, unable to move on, just getting weirder and meaner.
The other way of looking at death is much starker. Nothing leads up to it, nothing prepares for it. It crosses every line on which life runs, cutting across every hope, everything which gives life significance. Inexplicable, ruthless, blundering. It’s the pit of destruction. It wrecks, it defeats, it shatters. We can never tell when or how its blow will fall. We talk of “the end” and of people “losing a battle”.
Death is both final and catastrophic, but also is not the end of the story and does not prevent a continuing connection with those we love, and the hope of resurrection.
We can’t escape the reality that death has, and will again, ruin our peace and take people from us. Dressing it up in pretty language won’t undo its fundamental violence. But if we hold fast to our values: that our lives are meaningful; that the love we have for one another is worth something more than animal attraction and instinct; that we are created for a reason; that God is love; that Christ has gone before us to show the way; then we can describe death as ‘nothing at all’. From an eternal perspective, death really is just a blip; if Christ is the resurrection and the life, then death is defeated. This is the good news. If our faith is true, and we are not just some gross cosmic accident, then death really is nothing at all.
As we take our palm crosses home, as prepare for, and experience the uncomfortable and difficult nature of Good Friday, may we be ready to hear the good news that will come at Easter.