What follows is the text of a homily that I gave at a service of Compline in Clare College Chapel, Cambridge as part of the ‘Easter at King’s Festival’ yesterday 1 April 2015. As I wrote and delivered it I found that I had on my mind – in an involuntary kind of way – many thoughts and feelings about my friend Joe Cassidy, who died suddenly last weekend.
Joe lived next door to us in Durham, and was Principal of St Chad’s my old College. A Canadian Jesuit who became an Anglican, married and grew a lovely family, Joe was both remarkably formidable and amazingly friendly: a person of real intellectual sophistication, tough mindedness, tender hearted-ness, and moral courage. What he did for St Chad’s as an institution was astonishing. What he did for many individuals was incalculable. And the way he did it – mostly by paying them intelligent attention, connecting and thinking alongside those who were younger and much less wise than him, As I always knew I was. Though I always underestimated how much older he was than me. It was, in fact, just a few years. I thought it was more like a decade . Not that he ever seemed old. He was always youthful. But he just seemed to know so much more, have had more experience, be able to look at things more sensibly than me; so I assumed he must have been alive longer than he had. The truth is that he was just a different quality of person. Many will miss him greatly, and many will miss him personally. As will I.
So, here is that homily.
If you attend this or any other Chapel in Cambridge you will probably be familiar with Evensong and realise that it is structured around two gospel canticles – the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis. Taken together these survey of the spiritually of the whole of life – the Magnificat being the song of the rejoicing mother to be, and the Nunc Dimittis being the song of the man who is ready to depart in peace.
Compline is a more ancient service than Evensong and is, in fact, one of its ingredients – the other being Vespers, the ancient home of the Magnificat.
So in Compline we find the Nunc Dimittis standing alone. And as such it creates a rather different atmosphere. For if you find the whole of life at Evensong, you find you are closer to death at Compline; something exacerbated by the time of day, the darkness and, indeed, words that come at the beginning of the office itself – ‘May the Lord Almighty grant us a quiet night’ – well, yes, please, ‘and a perfect end’. Noctem quietam et finem perfectum .
Once you know this you might properly expect your homilist to touch on the subject of mortality in general, and dying in particular, at some point this week. It’s not normally a subject we embrace, though the season of Lent begins with dust – ‘remember that you are dust and to dust you will return’, and ends, as we all know, with the death of Jesus.
And what of that – is that a perfect end?
There is a lot of talk about aspiring to be ‘Christlike’ these days. I am not sure it is always wise talk. It is hard to imagine aspiring to a Christlike death – unless overwhelming pain, excruciating isolation and public shame are your idea of a perfect end. Earnest attempts to take the edge off the agony of this seem to be mistaken to me. There is no point in suggesting that Jesus has a God-like mind that could happily understand his own pain and isolation in terms of the grand narrative of salvation history. If Jesus went through the crucifixion as anything other than fully human then he wasn’t, as it were, taking us with him. On the other hand, if Jesus went through the crucifixion as just another person being killed by the forces of politics, and envy, and religious irritation then there would be nothing much more to be said about his death, The story of Easter would simply be the story of a resurrection that would have happened anyway, even if Jesus had died in his sleep.
This is the wrong time of day to try to enter into complex theological argument, and in any case the reality is that Jesus died as a human being, though as a human being who was in some sense God, though his God-ness was not at the expense of the humanity of his mind, any more than it was at the expense of the vulnerability of his body.
In other words, and this is my last bit of theology – the death and resurrection of Christ tell us something entirely new and unique about the nature of God. It tells us that God can make his home in a human person and be fully present without diminishing the humanity of that person in any way at all.
Quite what that means for us human beings in our relationship with God is a huge question, huge enough to drop into the middle of Holy Week. Certainly it means that we couldn’t and shouldn’t expect to relate to God in the same way as those who do not know, or have not reflected on, the Jesus story. That story changes everything. And it makes inter-faith relations both really difficult and absolutely vital. Difficult because how can a person who knows of the cross and resurrection of the incarnate son of God understand the word ‘God’ comparably with someone who knows or believes nothing of it? And yet vital because one thing this story of God’s love teaches us is that God’s love, God’s mission, God’s energetic compassionate affirmation of others knows no bounds. And so we move towards others who are different to us and find that we are both bewildered by them, and at the same time completely committed to respecting and learning from them.
And this is not despite what we believe about God in Christ, but because of what we have learnt of God in and through Christ.
Which is perhaps a long way from the question of what a perfect end might look like. But let me venture this – that a good death is one where the dying person is aware at some level of their being that they are beloved of God, even perhaps in some small way inhabited by God, and that their desire, should they die, is deeper communion with God and, if they live, to share the love of God through compassionate, honest and humble relationships with others – familiar, ordinary and exotic others – all others.
‘May the Lord almighty grant us a quiet night…’ Well, perhaps, and we might hope so.
‘And a perfect end’ ? Well yes, to the extent to which we can emulate Jesus, not in his heroic suffering, but in his generous loving. To die knowing and feeling and believing that you are loved and that you love others – well, that’s the way to go.