In recent weeks I have found myself very occupied in funeral ministry. That may not sound surprising as we continue to journey through the Covid 19 pandemic, but not one of the funerals I have conducted in recent days has had its origins in the coronavirus. Each funeral has marked the drawing to a close of a long life that has drawn to its natural conclusion. Having said that, each funeral that I have conducted in recent days has been affected by the current global health crisis.
At each funeral loved ones, who are often struggling with their own sense of loss, have had to make difficult decisions and have had to engage in challenging conversations about who can and cannot attend the funeral. Suddenly they are confronted with the reality of an abbreviated service, the universal wearing of face masks and the ‘maximum of thirty people’ rule. These new conditions, and the general air of uncertainty (and sometimes fear) has turned the celebration of a life into an even greater ordeal than it might otherwise have been.
The sense of loss and confusion I have seen in the context of funeral ministry has not rested solely in that sad area of our lives. In our wider communities there is an equally profound sense of loss. Shops, public houses and restaurants, doctors, dentists and hairdressers have all had to adopt new working practices. Even our churches, and other places of worship and spiritual consolation, have not been exempt from government and scientific edict. All of this has conspired to bring on a sense of bereavement and loss in many.
The Christian faith encourages us all to live in hope, no matter what storms may be battering us in our daily lives. At the moment, many will be wondering how we are supposed to tap into that stream of optimism. The Covid 19 infection rate is going up, local restrictions are being placed on large communities up and down the country, and we are being threatened with legal penalties if we do not strictly adhere to the rules imposed on us by central government. In addition, the nation’s economy and international reputation seems to be crumbling around our ears. How can Christians, or anyone else, possibly be speaking of hope when confronted with so much that is negative?
Firstly, we need to remember that those who call themselves Christians are very aware of sacrifice and pain. Jesus himself was the victim of a perfunctory trial process which led to the most brutal of executions. Those first followers of Jesus knew the total devastation of seeing all their hopes for the future being dashed before their eyes. And yet, Christians do continue to live in hope. That hope is based on the events that followed the horrors of the day we know as Good Friday. After three days of abject misery, the power of Jesus’ resurrection changed the history of our world for ever. Jesus, that great teacher and healer, broke the power of death and sin. Jesus showed us that God does indeed love this world and is always offering the hope of his loving embrace, no matter how dark things may seem.
2020, some two thousand years after the events of that first Holy Week, is going to be remembered as a landmark year in the history of our world. But, we need to remember that it is not the first. There have been other pandemics throughout the human story that have brought much greater devastation to lives than we are experiencing now. Just one hundred years ago the Spanish flu pandemic brought about the deaths of far more than the carnage of the previous four years’ of international warfare. Today is different, though. It is different because we do have scientists and medical researchers whose understanding and skills have developed exponentially. We do have the ability, if not to eradicate, then to contain and limit the effects of the Covid 19 pandemic. We do have reasonable grounds for living in hope.
2020 (and possibly 2021) is going to be remembered as the year when things had to change. This is a time when we have to set aside our old ways of living and think more of those with whom we are journeying through this life. Many levels of vulnerability have been exposed by the coronavirus, and it is our responsibility to play our part in alleviating the plight of the most vulnerable by sharing the joy of Christian love and hope, by setting aside our love of self, and by extending the hand of friendship to everyone, no matter who or what they are. We are living in difficult times, but the Christian message of hope and joy will see us through. I promise.
Revd Stephen Buckman