I was on Radio Newcastle a couple of weeks ago. The day after Terry Pratchett died, they did a phone-in on making a good death. They asked me to contribute because I had been involved in the Death Café a couple of years ago at the Park View Inn. The aim of the Death Café is to create a safe space for people to talk about death, to face their fears and ask their questions. It’s all about making a good death, which is about being reconciled with your past and facing your future in peace and with understanding.
Last month, there were a lot of funerals, though it seems to have quietened down a bit now. Quite often on these occasions, I say that every funeral reminds you of your own mortality. And in the Gospel reading today, that’s where Jesus is at.
Today is the fifth Sunday of Lent, often called Passion Sunday. And the mood changes from this point. It becomes more solemn, more sombre. We are getting close now to the crucifixion, to Jesus’ death. And Jesus is trying to prepare the disciples, explaining that he is going to die.
Some Greeks – gentiles, non-Jews – come to Philip and tell him that they want to see Jesus. Philip is a Greek name. Maybe these visiting Greeks knew him, maybe they just recognised that he would be sympathetic. Philip goes to talk to Andrew. He obviously isn’t sure about how to respond to such a request – why the reticence, I wonder? The two disciples go to Jesus to tell him. And then something strange happens. Jesus doesn’t say, “oh, bring them along tomorrow” or even, “Well, I’m going to be in the Temple and they aren’t allowed in there”. Instead, he starts talking about his death. It’s as if the coming of the Greeks is a sign to Jesus that death is close. Why? Maybe because he knew that if foreigners, gentiles, started to hear and to follow, it would really annoy the Jewish authorities and hasten their need to do away with him. Maybe he just recognised that his message about the Kingdom of God was getting just too big for the Jewish nation and that in order to grow, he could have to die first. Maybe because the Psalms and the prophets talk about the time of the Messiah, when all the nations will come and want to know about God.
Jesus used the image that Paul is later to use when he is writing to the Christians in Corinth – that a seed must die in order to bear fruit. It is a reading that I often use at funerals.
The way John tells the story, Jesus reflects on his own feelings about his coming death, and he recognizes that suffering and death are part of what he has come to do. That’s a hard thing to face.
It’s something I am often asked by families when we are preparing for the funeral: Why do the good ones have to suffer and die? And when someone is watching, or has watched, their loved one die from illness, that’s not the time to discuss the question. All you can do is sympathise.
But the reality is that we are all going to suffer in this life and that we are all going to die. The suffering may lead to death, or it may be a separate experience, but there is no escaping it. It is part of what we are here to do, to suffer and to suffer well, to die and to make a good death.
It was what Jesus came to do, and it’s no different for us. Why should the servant be different from the Master? Maybe the good ones suffer because they can take it better, because they are closer to Jesus? I don’t know.
For myself, I wish a good death when the time comes. Nine years ago, I suddenly started with abdominal pain one night, and couldn’t control it. That night, I started writing out my wishes – who was to be involved in my funeral, what hymns I wanted, that sort of thing. That’s how bad I felt – I still have the papers. The pain went on for 3 months. Sometimes, the cocktail of pain killers managed to control it, sometimes they didn’t. It turned out to be cancer, but I had a full hysterectomy and radiotherapy, and I have been fine ever since. That was my personal brush with death, and it did make me think about the way I want to go. I am using myself as an example, but all of you have had the kind of experiences that make you look death in the face and wonder how you’re going to cope when the time comes.
For me, when the time comes, I want to go with every assistance that the church can provide, with the sacrament of reconciliation, anointing and Holy Communion, with the prayers of my friends and family, the church and the Community of Saints to accompany me and all the hosts of heaven to welcome me. Or something like that.
For me, death is the door to something greater and more glorious than I have experienced here on earth. I look forward to it, though I love life and intend to enjoy every minute of the time I have left to me. Eternal life begins here. It begins when you choose to follow Christ and embrace the reality of suffering and death that will befall all of us in this life. And that may sound gloomy, but actually it is very liberating.
Making a good death begins with living a good life, a life that gives glory to God.
In the story that John tells, God the Father responds to Jesus’ reflections on his suffering and death. Jesus prays that the Father’s name will be glorified. And a voice from heaven says, “I have glorified it and I will glorify it again.” God was glorified because Jesus was obedient, because he poured himself out, because he loved so much, even unto death.
Let us pray that God will be glorified in us, in our living and our dying.
To hear Meg on Radio Newcastle: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02kq06v#auto until 10 April 15