Death is nothing at all?

Fr Alec
Sunday, November 6, 2016 - 9:30am

At the Resurrection, whose wife will she be? 


Not many people nowadays are familiar, I suspect, with name of Canon Henry Scott Holland. I know him as a Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, founder of the Christian Social Union, and a canon of St Paul’s Cathedral, because he is buried in the churchyard of All Saint’s Cuddesdon, where I was a student. But those who have heard the name may well know him best as the author of a passage which is often read at funerals, which begins:


‘Death is nothing at all. It does not count. 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.’


This is not, as is sometimes suggested, a poem. Rather it is part of a sermon. A sermon which he gave at the funeral of King Edward VII. And it is helpful to remember that the message of quiet reassurance that we receive from the reading is only a part of a larger picture he was painting of our response to death. The way we can instinctively have two contradictory responses. 


Scott Holland recognised, as we all do. That death is not nothing at all. When we come face to face with the loss of those we love most, it can be painful, and dislocating, and all-encompassing. He describes it as ‘the supreme and irrevocable disaster…’ rendering ‘all we do here as meaningless and empty.’ It is disingenuous to deny this brute fact, but it stands alongside another natural instinct. The sense of unbroken continuity, of death being only a ‘negligible accident.’ It is only, he argues, in the hope of Christ's resurrection that we are able to draw these contradictory strands satisfactorily together. And in addressing this he draws on the First Epistle of John:


‘Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when He shall appear we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.’


Now this is very much the theme of our gospel today. The Sadducees, understandably sceptical of their radical brethren the Pharisees who teach the resurrection of the dead, scent that Jesus is propounding the same doctrine. And they take him to task, setting him the problem of this hypothetical woman with all her husbands. ‘At the resurrection,’ they ask, ‘whose wife will she be?’


But they have made a mistake. They have assumed that resurrection is simply a question of reanimation. Of picking up where we left off. Of continuing much as were. Like the figures from Stanley Spencer’s pictures of Cookham, clambering from the ground in their nightshirts and their Sunday best, the resurrected wife steps back into a reality unchanged from her former life.


And it is on this point that Jesus takes issue. The Sadducees have made a naive error. They have conflated the current age with the age to come. The present life with the resurrected life, yet to be.


People often talk about ‘Life after Death.’ 

It’s an awkward phrase, understandably used more by people on the outside of religion looking in than vice versa. Christians talk about victory over death. About the promise of New Life in Christ.


The bland continuation of old life is the stuff of nightmares. It is the way in which we choose to scare ourselves when we go to the cinema to watch a horror film about ghosts, or zombies, or vampires. These are the fictions which put flesh on the idea that scarier even than death is the endless perpetuation of existence without the hope of something more, some possibility of fulfilment and completion.


But this is not the hope that faith offers us. What we discover in Christ is so much more. Mysterious and unsettling, certainly, because it is a step into the unknown. Familiar also, however, and deeply longed for, because it presents us with a vision of a world transformed, made New, of our lives stripped of the mortal dross, the collected detritus of life that held us back from being truly ourselves , from truly living.


‘We shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed,’ says St Paul.

it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when He shall appear we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.’ says St John.


Think of the risen Christ as Mary encountered Him in the garden, as his disciples met him on the Emmaus road and in the upper room. Here was a man who was the same but different. Not immediately recognisable, but unmistakeable to those who knew him. A man both hidden in and revealed by God.

In the same way Jesus offers us life, New life, life saturated in the intimate presence of God. A flourishing life in which the obstacles and limitations of this present age have been removed and done away. The old life has been crucified with Him, and with Him we have risen again.