Beware of what you promise. That’s a maxim which could easily apply to any area of life, but over recent weeks a variety of different promises I made as I stood in an ancient English cathedral less than 3 months before 9/11 have been re-echoing in my mind.
These are the promises made by those about to be ordained – set apart by the church for service in and to the church and the world. The one echoing loudest at the moment is a few simple words: ‘to prepare the dying for their death’.
A cursory reading of that, together with popular assumptions about the role of the vicar/priest/rector, may lead you to assume that the promise is about visiting, spending time with and praying with or for those who are facing death in an immediate sense. Of course that’s part of it – one of the indisputable privileges of my job is to be there in the big moments of life and death.
But there’s much more. One retired priest told me, just before I was ordained, that part of the role and calling of the priest is to ‘think the unthinkable and say the unsayable’. I don’t know if he was quoting someone else or if it was one of his own truisms, but it’s stayed with me. It’s become increasingly true for me in the 11 yeas since – there are times when we’re called to say things that people just don’t want to hear, compelled to speak when everyone else is wearing earphones. The unsayable I’m thinking of here is that ‘the dying’ of that ordination day promise is all of us, all of the time. We’re all dying. Scientists call it entropy – that all things tend towards decay and disorder; part of the calling of someone called by the church to the church and the world is to hold before a community and a people the fact that we’re all dying and the sooner we reconcile ourselves to that fact and live in the light of it, the better.
Of course, like everything, there all sorts of places we could make a serious mis-step here. We could become sour faced misery-peddlars who sneer at anything remotely fun with a ‘not of this world’ air; we could repeatedly scare people into salvation (finding out much later people saved thus often either fall back into old ways or become disturbingly hard-hearted); we could become so concerned with the after-life that we forget to do any good in this life.
All of those and more are dangers we need to constantly check ourselves against. An awareness of death, though, while being a consequence of our insistence on going our own way, can also be something of a gift to the perpetually busy and stressed. As the writer of Ecclesiastes said, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting” (Ecclesiastes 7:2, ESV). To live and love at least with that awareness, that life is a process of preparing to live eternally with the one in whose image we’re made and in whose creation we dwell, should for the Christian be an immensely joyful and liberating process. It should hone our sense of call – what is MY role in preparing all around me for death? How am I pointing people to a bigger, deeper reality? How do I live well in such a way that I will die well?
This doesn’t mean that we don’t cry at funerals or feel absence and loss keenly and deeply. Of course we do. We all do. Death is an enemy. It is horrible. It’s in the nature of God, though, to take that which may seem intended for evil and transfigured it into something deeper and better altogether. Death is horrible. Death is defeated. Death, then, because it is defeated, can help us live well. Now, and forever.