John 12: 20-36
‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified’. I find our Gospel reading today, on this day, this Tuesday in Holy Week, to be really moving. We are in company with Jesus as he gets ready to die. He is fully prepared. As Son of God he knows that his death will bring life and salvation to the world. But he’s also Son of Man, he is just like us: flesh and blood. He is fearful. ‘Now, my soul is troubled he says’. We hear similar words in the other Gospels, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; (Matthew 26:38)
Each day of this Holy Week, Jesus draws closer to his death. We meditate again on his gracious words and actions, culminating in that glorious final commitment from the Cross, ‘Into your hands O Lord I commend my spirit’. In doing so we can I believe be strengthened to prepare for our own death. Jesus was fully prepared for his death, and we should be too. There is something rather important being said in the Great Litany in the Book of Common Prayer when we pray to be ‘delivered from dying suddenly and unprepared.’ It is good to be ready, to be prepared for when our own death comes. St Francis of Assisi could speak of death as ‘Sister Death’, because she was for him a familiar and welcome companion. It is said of Pope John 23rd -good Pope John- that as he lay dying of a rather terrible stomach cancer, he told his secretary, ‘My bags are packed and ready to go.’ In the Rule of our Society we read, ‘We are called to remember our mortality day by day with unflinching realism, shaking off the sleep of denial.’ (Chapter 48). Death for the Christian is no enemy, is not to be feared, but is rather a kind angel waiting to lead us into the presence of our heavenly Father.
So perhaps this Holy Week might be a good time for each of us to prepare for our own death, not in a morbid way, but in a way that actually can make us more fully alive! As our Rule puts it, ‘The anticipation of death is essential if we are to live each day to the full as a precious gift.’
So, are your bags packed? If you were to face death now, would you be ready? Jesus was ready. He had already taken leave of his loved ones, his disciples. In those wonderful words recorded in John’s Gospel at the Last Supper, the ‘Farewell Discourse’, Jesus gave thanks to the Father for them, and he blessed them with peace. Would you be ready to leave your loved ones? Our Rule puts it like this: ‘Remembering that death can come to us at any time, …we shall remember to express to one another those things that would make us ready to part without regrets, especially thanksgiving and reconciliation.’
When I was a parish priest in Berkhamsted in England, I was also chaplain to our local Hospice of St Francis. It was an incredible privilege to sit with men and women in their final hours, praying with them and helping them to prepare for their death. I always found it a privilege, and a deeply spiritual experience. It was then that I came across these simple words of the Indian mystic Tagore which I have always found so sustaining, and which I hope to be able to say when my own death comes. He wrote, ‘Death is not extinguishing the light, but putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.’ That surely is our greatest hope in Jesus, that with trust in the love of God, we shall each see the day when, ‘Heaven’s morning breaks and earth’s vain shadows flee’. We hold fast to that promise made at the very beginning of the story of Jesus; ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.’
The reality of that truth will become especially vivid in this monastery chapel and in churches all over the world early this Sunday morning, when as one community under the Risen Christ we shall celebrate the first Eucharist of Easter together. We shall find ourselves at first enshrouded in darkness, the black night of Jesus’ cross and death. And then will come that glorious moment when the Light of Christ is lit and carried to every person in Christ’s Church. The lights will blaze and the bells will ring. Everything we do during this Holy Week is because of that glorious Resurrection that is to come, that wonderful dawn that is to break. We know it is there, just around the corner, that Jesus is waiting for us with words of hope, words of faith, and the promise of light and life.
Maybe this week, as we journey together through death to life, you might like to return to a favorite spiritual book or favorite Scripture passages to pray with. Every Holy week I always return to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. It is so full of hope and joy. I’ll close with my favorite passage, in which Christian is weighed down with the burden of sin and the fear of death. And we read;
‘He came to a place, somewhat ascending, and upon that place stood a cross, and just as he came to the cross his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back and began to tumble down and down until it came to the mouth of the sepulcher, where it fell in and I saw it no more. Then was Christian glad and lightsome, and said with a merry heart, ‘He hath given me rest by his sorrow and life by his death.’ Then he stood still a while to look and wonder, for it was very surprising to him that the sight of the Cross should thus ease him of his burden. He looked and looked again, until the springs that were in his head sent the waters down his cheeks. Then Christian gave three leaps of joy, and went on his way singing.’
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