Raising of Jairus Daughter, Ilia Efimovich Repin (1844–1930), 1871; The State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg

Fr Neil’s homily for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity, 27 June 2021

‘For God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own eternity.’

It is usually said that “one doesn’t speak about religion or politics in polite company.” We could add a third subject that most people get very uncomfortable with — death.

We sometimes treat death as if it’s a embarrassing old aunt stuck in the corner of the room. Most of the time we pretend that they are not there and yet like most embarrassing relatives they will occasionally and rudely let everyone know of their presence.

Death is inescapable however much we try to ignore it. Death is woven into the whole created order. Our finite mortality shapes our lived experience. It’s true that young men can often think they are invincible. This can come about especially if they haven’t properly transitioned from boyhood to manhood and been confronted with their own mortality.

Yet as we get older our bodies, as they begin to break down, constantly remind us of the finite nature of our lives. As a footballer, like all athletes, by the time you’ve reached your mid-30s you are in the twilight of your career — your body is in decline. The cruelty of it is that inside, in our spirit and soul, almost however old our bodies are, we still feel young.

When exposed to death — even if it is expected and natural at the end of a person’s life — we will almost certainly experience a sense of shock, disbelief and even a sense of outrage. We also know that over-exposure to death, particularly unnatural death, can make a person vulnerable to long-term mental health issues such as PTSD, depression, anxiety, and despair.

The Covid pandemic has divided and traumatised this and other nations through the fear and reality of death. The lived experience of some, and government policies, have brought the threat of suffering and death into everything we do. Death is no longer sitting in the corner being ignored but is screaming in our faces. Everyone and everything could be a death-bringer. The fear of such death is leading to a serious loss of our civil liberties in general and an apartheid system where those who are not vaccinated will lose their jobs and have their freedom of movement severely restricted. This is not medically-driven but a punishment for being a non-compliant citizen.

Such fear reveals that deep within ourselves we know that death as we experience it now was never meant to be. Perhaps we get a glimpse of what was meant to be in the biblical stories of Enoch, (“Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him.”¹) and Elijah, (“behold, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.”²) There also the Assumption of Our Lady and the bodily incorruptible saints, all hinting at something other than death as we know it.

We find death shocking; yet in an act of complete self-contradiction we have seen and accepted the development of a culture of death, motivated by the loss of the sacred and spiritual. Decisions are made on the notion of the greatest good for the greatest number. Death is turned into a act of mercy that alleviates the suffering of the elderly, disabled, and those suffering severe mental distress. The campaign to legalise euthanasia and abortion up to birth is founded on such thinking. In Holland and Belgium where this is now legal, both children with complex needs and the elderly have been euthanised, some against their will on the say-so of the courts or relatives. In this country we are aware of a number of high-profile cases where courts have overruled parents and insisted that their small child with complex needs must die as the humane option.

The time that we as human beings are most vulnerable to unnatural death, is not in a pandemic, traffic accident, terrorist attack or serving in the armed forces but when we are in the womb. Since the Abortion Act in the 1960’s there have been more than nine million abortions in this country alone — that is nothing short of a Holocaust and the loss of the Holy Innocents.

While I am aware that there can often be complex individual situations, I am wanting to highlight the general attitude that sits easy with these deaths because they are somehow deemed acceptable, necessary and even merciful.

Let’s remind ourselves what else our first reading says: “through the devil’s envy death entered the world.”³ No unnatural death can be viewed as merciful or morally acceptable, despite the intellectual gymnastics done by some to justify such a position.

In this lost world of sin and death, to whom can we turn? The gospel shows two examples that it is only Our Lord who can bring us any joy, meaning and hope. The woman with the ongoing haemorrhage is aware that death is active within her body and she has lost everything in search for a answer. It is in desperation that she breaks all social barriers and reaches out to touch just the hem of Christ’s clothing. It’s an act of faith that she tells herself that he alone can do what no-one else can: heal and save her. The synagogue ruler breaks ranks with those religious authorities who view Christ with fear and suspicion. The illness and imminent death of his daughter enable a clarity of vision that sees God’s mercy at work in the person of Christ, and he seeks him out to plead for his help. Our Lord’s words, “do not be afraid, only believe”⁴ are instructive not only for the father but for all in the light of death. The woman is healed and the daughter is raised, revealing that Christ has power over even death.

Salvation history reveals God’s purpose that our human dignity should be restored to immortality, in union with Christ and reconciliation to the Father. This is at the heart of the gospel and it is this purpose to which we are called to trust our lives, too. Paul states clearly the healing of the fallen world was brought about by Christ who “became poor for our sake, to make you rich.”⁵ This poverty meant emptying himself of glory, entering the world of sin that he might embrace death, our enemy.

Rising from the dead Christ took death captive and made it obedient to the purposes of God. Death for those in Christ meant no longer the long dark night of the abyss but a gateway into eternal glory. In baptism we died with Christ that we might rise with him into the heavenly kingdom. When we celebrate the mass we participate in the power of Christ’s death, resurrection and divine life as we receive him in the sacrament. And so although we rightly grieve, sorrow and shed tears at the death of loved ones, we do not grieve as those who have not hope.

For as St Paul says⁶:

When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality,
    then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
    O death, where is your sting?”

¹ Genesis 5:24
² 2 Kings 2:11
³ Wisdom 2:24
⁴ Mark 5:36
⁵ cf 2 Corinthians 8:9
⁶ 1 Corinthians 15:54–55

The editorial title is taken from Psalm 118:17.