Sunday, 16 May 2010

40 Years Old, Death as friend, Ascension, Year C, Shaftesbury

40 years old! I recently celebrated my 40th birthday. I say ‘celebrated’ with qualification, because being 40 is not really something I’m happy about. In fact, it’s something of a problem.
Strictly speaking, I don’t mind being 40, it’s the things that come with being 40. Now, like many mid-life men, I have sought to fight the decline of my body, and this year I have taken up running, lowered my blood pressure and shed over a stone in weight. But, nonetheless, when I look in the mirror I see bloodshot eyes surrounded by wrinkles that no longer go away with a good night’s sleep, I see hair falling out, and the hair that's left being interspersed with increasing flecks of grey.
There is no denying the fact that my body is not what it used to be.

In fact, it seems to me, that the worst thing about turning 40 is that 50, 60, and the grave, seem increasingly close. And looking at my family history, being 40 is being half-way dead. Some people throw big PARTIES when they reach this milestone, when they become half-dead. I, however, walked down the road to the cemetery and checked that there is space for me in the grave with the other dead priests who have served Shaftesbury.
I am dying. Not in hurry. Probably not any day soon, but I am dying, and this is what is all the clearer to me on turning 40.

But I can say all this with a smile on my face, and I want to share with you a thought about dying. Obviously, especially in a parish where over 5% of the congregation is over 90 (and that’s only those of you who have told me your age), there are many of you who could add a thought or two yourselves. But I want to tell you that the older I have got the more I have come to see death as a “friend”, and a friend TO ME. And today’s feast of the Ascension gives us a very clear reminder of why death is a “friend” –because of the hope of Heaven.

Admittedly, Heaven is a hope not a certainty, because none of us can say for sure whether we will go there. Jesus warned that the way to enter is by “the narrow gate”, along the “hard” path, and that “few” find it (Mt 7:13-14). But, nonetheless, living a life that repeatedly seeks to re-orient itself to that goal, that knows the mercy of God and calls on the mercy of God every time we realise we have fallen, living a life in the hope of heaven is living a life that sees death as a friend.

Let us note for a minute the way that the disciples responded, at an emotional level, to the fact that Jesus had ascended. We might think they would be sad that Jesus had left them. Instead, the Gospel tells us, they were “full of joy”(Lk 24:52) -Because the ascension of Jesus into Heaven was the DEFINITIVE sign that Heaven exists. We know from the Gospels that some of the Jews, the Sadducees, doubted that there was life after death. But the fact that Jesus not only rose from the dead but was ascended, in a bodily manner, into Heaven, is THE sign that Heaven exists as a permanent, bodily, transfigured and glorified place. To know this, to know this with such certainty –it is hardly surprising that they were “full with joy”.
And this must be our joy too. The prayer of the Preface for Mass today says, “where he [the head ] has gone, we hope to follow” –but IS this our hope?

I have said that death is a “friend”. But, some of our friends make us a little uncomfortable. Death can be an uncomfortable friend because he, or she (because St Francis called her “sister” death), can be an uncomfortable friend because she reminds us of where our hope lies. If our hope lies in this world, in possessions, in the beauty of the flesh that blossoms today but fades tomorrow (or, in my case, faded some years ago) –if our hope lies here then death is not the friend but the enemy. But she can BECOME our friend by forcefully re-focussing us on what lasts, on the goal that is a WORTHY goal for living: Heaven.

Growing old is no fun, no “joy”, at least not the physical process of decay –it’s a result of Original Sin.
But if we approach the process of approaching death with faith, remembering, as we heard in our second reading, that “the one who made the promise is faithful” (Heb 10:23), then even a 40th Birthday can be something to give us “joy”.

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