It was quite by accident that we found ourselves in a great crowd watching a religious procession, not like any religious procession you would find in an Anglican setting. There were dancing dragons carried on poles. There were golden lions, larger than life. There were the stories of the gods acted out on flat-bed trucks, groups of dancing children, and, at last, came the gods themselves, carried on poles. We were, it seems, celebrating the birthday of one of these gods.
We happened to be standing near to a Chinese café, which had set up a shrine on the pavement in front, an altar with incense and fruit. Each passing dragon and lion stopped and honoured the shrine. And at the end, when the gods themselves came by, the café owners emptied out bags and bags of imitation paper money in a heap on the road in front of the altar and set it alight, there on the public highway. This was money for the deceased ancestors, to ensure that they wanted for nothing in the afterlife.
Way back, when the funerals of the ancestors had been held, the families had burned paper models of cars and computers and white goods, so that the dead would have had all that they needed to live well in the eternal lands.
But this was Kuching, Sarawak, and this was an ancient Chinese faith long since expunged in the Chinese mainland and brought here by the diaspora in the 17th and 18th centuries.
And then, 18 months later, just 2 months ago, we were in China itself, and we visited Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian temples. Though these temples were generally reconstructions for the benefit of the tourists, there were a lot of young people engaged in worship. And to outward observers, the worship seemed to be pretty much the same whichever kind of temple we were visiting. A fistful of lighted incense sticks was held above the head and the worshipper bowed north and south, east and west. They were there to gain blessings, but also to worship the ancestors. The sense of connection to those who had gone before was massive.
The week after we got home, we held our All Souls tide service at St Chad’s to remember and give thanks for those who have died, welcoming the families of the funerals we had held over the last year. One woman said to me at the end, “I have been coming to this service for 6 years, and now I know I need to let go”, which was huge progress, an important step on the path of bereavement.
Every time we go to a funeral, it challenges us to think again about what happens to us when we die. Most people bat the question away as it flutters through their consciousness – it’s certainly not something people in my parish want to think about too deeply.
The Church believes in the Resurrection of the Body.
In this Season of Advent, the church is preparing for the coming of Christ – in two ways. Christ is born as an infant in the animal room of a simple house in Bethlehem, God gives up the glory of heaven to be born as a human, with all the mess and misery that means. We call that the incarnation – the enfleshment, the embodying of God. Human bodies are so important that God chooses to share that experience and show himself, his love, to us.
And the second awaiting is for Christ again, for Christ returning at the end of time. It is a key theme of Advent. We are called to open our eyes and look around us and see the signs of the fulfilment of that promise. Christ is coming again. Maranatha!
And when Christ comes again, the dead will rise from their tombs and be a part of the new heavenly kingdom in which God lives with his people, where there is no darkness, no sin, no death, nor mourning, no crying.
And that’s what the church calls the Resurrection of the Body, the embodying, the enfleshment, the incarnation of the human beings who have died and whose first bodies have been returned to the earth, to dust, and to ashes.
We will be raised, and we will be raised bodily, because Christ himself rose from the dead. In the second lesson, Thomas is none too sure about this. He cannot believe the disciples’ story that Jesus is alive again until he sees for himself. He needs to know. The next week when the disciples are gathered behind closed doors, Jesus appears and invites Thomas to see the prints of the nails and touch the open wound and feel the real flesh. Jesus’ resurrection body is a real body. It is recognisably Jesus. It retains the wounds of earthly life. But it can pass through locked doors in a way not known to humans. It is the same, and it is different.
And that tells us what we might expect of the Resurrection Body. That is what I hope for at the end of time, when I am raised again – a transformed body, a renewed body, a body that can live eternally in a redeemed and re-created world.
Ezekiel had a vision of a vast field of dry bones coming together to form skeletons which are then enfleshed and filled with the spirit of life. The prophet was not talking about the resurrection of the body at the end of time, but about how we live this life, here on earth. He imagined a life restored, so that the people of Israel could return to the land and to community, living in God’s way, inspired by God’s spirit. The resurrection of the body will come about, but in the meantime, we are invited to live the resurrection life here and now, to live as those who are fully alive and fully expectant. In Advent we are called from darkness into light, from blindness into sight, from dull routine into God-given possibilities. We are called to face the hard questions of our own frailty and mortality, so that we can lay a-hold of living now. Birth and Death are bound together. We are waiting for the birth of a child who is going to die so that we might fully live.
When I die, my children will not offer up paper models of the goods I might need in the afterlife. I trust they will not even burn my books to provide post-mortem reading. I do not need to bring matter into the hereafter, because one day, I will be returning to matter, to abide in the glorious kingdom.