I ask your prayers this evening and the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen. Please be seated.
From the book of Wisdom: “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died. And their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction, but they are at peace.”
This scripture from the Wisdom of Solomon has always comforted me for the simple fact that I know it to be true. The way I articulate my own theology of death, of how one passes from this life to the next, has evolved over the years as I have personally walked through the valley of the shadow of death with my own parents, and then of course with some of you who have lost loved ones. Let me be clear, this does not mean that my theology of the resurrection has been anything other than resolute. I believe, like Jesus, that we mortals are resurrected to abide with God and our beloveds for eternity. What this eternity looks like, no one knows. Is it a place or a state of being? Our finite brains and imaginations cannot possibly conjure what this paradise looks like or is. As the psalmist confesses in Psalm 139, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me. It is so high that I cannot attain to it.”
As Christians, we believe that death is not an end and not oblivion, but instead transcends time and space. Jesus did not die when he died and neither do we. Our relationships are not severed at death but refocused beyond physical connection. It is up to us to lift our eyes above the illusion of death, to see the eternity of one’s life and the twinkling residue of their spirit. For it is ultimately the unbreakable bond of love which lifts us above, above both time and space and into the very life of God.
In 1997, when I was in seminary in New York City, my mother was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I flew home to take care of her upon her release from the hospital. My brother picked me up at the airport and drove me straight to her house. The instant we crossed her doorstep, we were both overwhelmed. This fragrance, this extraordinary fragrance had filled the house. We didn’t feel so much that we were smelling something as being imbued with it. It was like nothing I had ever experienced. This fragrance was beautiful, other worldly, but not rich or burnished or flowery, like expensive perfume. There was a clarity to it as if we were processing some purified form of light through our noses instead of our eyes. My brother and I looked around, sniffed around, to find its source. Had someone sent a bouquet of freshly picked gardenias?
As soon as my brother left, my mother turned to me and confided that we had just met her angel. She didn’t share this with my brother because she didn’t think he’d believe her. He’s not quite as churchy as I am or spiritual. But she told me that she was fully aware of the fragrance and that it had followed her home from the hospital. She knew at once what it was. Her angel, a companion sent by God, to protect her as she journeyed with her illness. She was unafraid and at peace.
She died four years later, a few hours before her 69th birthday. After her funeral, my husband, Andrew, and I loaded up some of her furniture and treasures from my childhood, and drove them home to Richmond, Virginia. My mother loved antique milk glass, so I had my portion of her ashes placed in a vase. This we secured in the U-Haul and headed home. Once we arrived, we placed her bedroom suite in the guest bedroom and her cremains on the fireplace mantle in the same room. I was still so gutted by her death that I couldn’t go into that room. I needed time to grieve and come to terms with my loss. And wouldn’t you know, as soon as I started to notice it, at first like an afterthought, but then stronger and stronger until there could be no doubt, that other worldly fragrance from four years earlier was emanating from the guest bedroom.
I couldn’t bear to enter. This went on for days. I started to freak out. I didn’t want to confide in Andrew for fear he’d think I’d fallen off the deep end in my grief. But finally, he approached me and said that something strange was going on in the guest bedroom. “Have you noticed that smell in the room?” He asked. “It’s incredible.” I about fell over. “Of course, yes. That’s mom’s angel.” And then I told him the story that I just told you. And we walked into the room together and acknowledged the fragrance, or should I say, her angel. We also spoke directly to my mother and told her that we knew this was her way of telling us that she was at peace and with God, that she had made her own way home. From that moment on, the fragrance slowly dissipated. I haven’t smelled it again. But I felt assured cancer no longer held her in bondage. She had been made perfect in God.
I acknowledge that this experience of spiritual ecstasy of my mother’s spirit visiting me on this side of the veil is not common. I have since felt her and my father right here, when I call on them for strength and courage. And this is exactly why I love the Celtic imagination as it relates to death in linear time. Theologian John O’Donahue explains it this way. “The nature of calendar time is linear. It is made up of durations that begin and end. The ancient Celts always sensed that beneath calendar time, there was an eternal depth. It relieves time of the finality of ending. This is how the spirit unfolds and deepens. In this sense, eternal time is intimate. It is where the unfolding narrative of individual life is gathered and woven in.”
What this means is that one’s existence is not encompassed by earthly birth, life and death. Our loved ones are not finite acts that existed and are now lost forevermore. They are stories that are written, spoken, and live among us just as we are and continue to be. For those who have faced death this past year and are now facing life, I pray you will acknowledge a power greater than yourself to walk this path with you. For me, that power is Jesus Christ. It is his power and presence that makes death bearable because I know the Holy Spirit abides, holding me and my loved ones in an eternal embrace.
I want to end with just a few stanzas from James Weldon Johnson’s poem, Go Down Death: A Funeral Sermon. This poem has comforted me time and time again. You may know Johnson, as the author of the hymn, Lift Every Voice and Sing. His poetry is just as inspiring. “And Jesus took his own hand and wiped away her tears, and he smoothed the furrows from her face, and the angels sang a little song, and Jesus rocked her in his arms and kept a saying: Take your rest, take your rest. Weep not, weep not. She is not dead. She’s resting in the bosom of Jesus.” Amen.