We began a new tradition at the hospice for which I serve as chaplain. That is, the annual memorial service. I had the task of delivering a short reflection for our time together. I wanted to honour and respect the variety of traditions that we all brought with us while speaking authentically from within my own tradition—I hope I accomplished that. Below is the reflection I gave, to a crowd who had lost a loved on in the previous year.
It is truly humbling and an honour to be able to say a few words at a gathering such as this. Some of you I know personally, others perhaps not at all. But I know from my own experience—having recently watched my grandmother stricken with cancer and wrestling with dementia—how difficult these sorts of journeys are, not only for our loved one but for those of us who witness their deterioration and must face the often overwhelming prospect of life without them.
And so there is a tension inherent in a memorial like this one. We remember with fondness and joy the life we shared with our loved ones, and yet we feel the sting of their loss. This is a tension that was drawn out in some of the readings and songs we have heard already this afternoon. For example, we heard read these words from the Irish poet John O’Donohue: “Though we need to weep your loss…Your love was like the dawn; Brightening over our lives/Awakening beneath the dark; A further adventure of colour.” He spoke also of the mysterious discovery of hope, even in grief: “May this dark grief flower with hope, in every heart that loves you,” (On The Death Of The Beloved). We heard also the words of James E. Miller: “I believe in the promising paradoxes of loss; In the midst of darkness, there can come a great Light. At the bottom of despair, there can appear a great Hope. And deep within loneliness, there can come a great Love,” (An Affirmation For Those Who Have Lost).
What is this tension we feel, between despair and hope, sadness and joy, darkness and light? It is, I think, a very human tension—that is, a mortal tension. That we have bodies brings us great joy. Our bodies enable us to embrace one another; to love and to be loved; to enjoy food with friends and family. Our bodies allow us to run and to play and to work. This is very good. And yet, at the same time, our bodies can be a source of grief and frustration—we have physical limitations; we fall ill; our bodies begin to physically deteriorate as we age; we die. We are mortal, yet it is precisely our mortality that is the fertile ground in which a deeply meaningful life may grow.
We see this deep truth contrasted in the rather joyful—playful, even—song we sang together earlier, O Christmas Tree. I’ll spare you my own rendition of the song, but note the lyrics of the first verse: “O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree! Thy leaves are so unchanging; Not only green when summer’s here, but also when ‘tis cold and drear. O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree! Thy leaves are so unchanging!” We see here the unchanging nature of coniferous trees especially when compared with deciduous trees which lose their leaves seasonally. The Oak tree, grand and beautiful as it is, knows not the constancy of the mighty Redwood.
It is not until the final verse of the song that the veil is pulled back, so to speak: “O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree! How richly God has decked thee! Thou bidst us true and faithful be, and trust in God unchangingly.” That is to say, the unchanging leaves of the Christmas Tree, point us towards a God who is unchanging, and thus to a God whom we can trust even in the midst of our lives which are subject to change, often unwelcome change.
Together we in this room represent many different religious and faith traditions. And in different ways each of our traditions speak to the beauty and frailty of human life. Speaking from within my own tradition, I think the Psalms have something to offer in this regard which may, perhaps, resonate with us all.
In Psalm 102, the psalmist cries out in lament: “My days pass away like smoke, and my bones burn like a furnace.” And again, “My days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass.” Our life is fleeting, and the older we get the more obvious this appears to us—“It feels like just yesterday when…” Time, especially time with those we love, can seem to go so quickly—“My days are like an evening shadow.” Moreover, our humanity is fragile. Whether we lost our loved ones in childhood, in the prime of their life, or at the end of a life of many years, we know the pain of witnessing those we care most deeply about bump up against the limitations of their condition or illness—“I wither away like grass.”
The psalmist continues, however: “But you, O LORD, are enthroned for ever; your name endures to all generations.” And also, “Long ago you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you endure.” Here the psalmist contrasts the frailty of human creatures, bound by time, with the eternal life of the Creator. Generations come and go, yet somehow, God’s own life embraces all people in all places at all times: “Your name endures to all generations.”
The psalmist goes on to say with confidence, “He will regard the prayer of the destitute, and will not despise their prayer.” That is to say, the difference between the Creator and creation is not a distance. Indeed, it is precisely this difference that means God is free to come to us, free to hear our deepest cries from our deepest depths. Surely, in one way or another for us all there is the hope of a God who cares, who listens, and who responds.
In the Christian faith that is the person of Jesus Christ, in whom we witness the coming together of these seemingly opposing realities—temporal constraints and eternity; sadness and joy; life and death; human flesh and the Living God; cross and resurrection. In Christ, death is not the end—there is life even in death. And this births hope, even in the darkness of death.
We are gathered here today to remember our loved ones, whose lives—no matter how short or how imperfect—mattered. They mattered because they were a gift, a gift in which we shared, and thus a gift which left an indelible mark on the world and, more profoundly, on us. We are who we are in part because of them. Thus, the great joy of loving and being loved, a joy that we could never have fathomed, is also marked with a deep pain at their loss. May the same love which you shared with your loved one continue to draw your family together. And may you trust in the unchanging God, who holds our whole life—tensions, paradoxes, and all—in his hands.