Susan Hill’s novella In the Springtime of the Year tells the story of the death in an accident of Ruth’s young husband, Ben; she is frozen with grief but as time passes, Easter comes round and she goes to the village church with Ben’s younger brother, Joe……..
“The last time Ruth had been inside the church was for Ben’s funeral. Well, she would not brood about that, it was over and she must think only about this day, trying to understand…….she went into the same pew and for a second saw again how it had been that other day, with the long pale coffin that had seemed to fill the whole building, the whole world……but what she became aware of after that was not the presence of the village people sitting or kneeling behind her, but of others, the church was full of all those who had ever prayed in it, the air was crammed and vibrating with their goodness and the freedom and power of their resurrection……….” That was not the end of the story; Ruth continued to grieve and there were moments when life continued to feel empty and she would always miss Ben from the bottom of her heart. That is the reality of the loss of loved one. In bereavement, time does not heal but we are changed – to quote Susan Hill once more at the very end of the book, “She was quite alone. But not alone. She was the same person, Ruth Bryce. But not the same. She loved Ben, and she wanted him, and still did not know how she might live the rest of her life.” Susan Hill, In the Springtime of the Year, Penguin 1974
We cannot be in St Mary’ this year but we are painfully aware that there are many who share Ruth’s sense of loss which for them is very present and shatteringly deep in the face of our current situation. Over 9000 people have died from Covid-19 in this country and over 100,000 across the world. Across the world, humanity is being touched and disrupted by this virus.
What hope can the events and message of Easter offer? Is there reality to the freedom and power of resurrection in the face of death? Can we with any integrity proclaim with St Paul, “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” 1 Corinthians 15:54-55
A fortnight ago the Gospel for the Sunday was the account of the raising of Lazarus at whose death Jesus wept. Lazarus was resuscitated; he was restored to how he had been but he would die again. Resurrection does not restore what has been; in resurrection, we are changed as Jesus was changed – physical yes, yet not bound by the normal physical restrictions and barriers; not always immediately recognisable yet still bearing the wounds of crucifixion. The wounds and hurts of the past find healing and salvation not in being wiped away but through incorporation into a new reality; in resurrection the changes and chances of this world, the slings and arrows, the failures and fissures are glorified to become the sculpted marks of a truer beauty. We can never and should never “get over” death but like Jesus face it with confidence that God transforms it, transforms us.
The hope we affirm and celebrate today is that the glimpse of the freedom and power of resurrection sensed in the lives of so many who have gone before us and witnessed to by Susan Hill is indeed the suggestion of a deeper reality.
In this very particular situation of “lock-down” and real fear of death, in this situation which does feel like exile – cut off from the familiar modes of daily life – we have the biblical experience of God’s ancient people to reflect upon. From the captivity of Egypt and the wilderness existence in Sinai, the Promised Land was new reality; the return from Babylon resulted in a new Temple and a new Judaism; whenever the people attempted in some way to capture the past, then the road to destruction beckoned. The call was to be something new, something changed. For us, the current situation was well summed by the Queen, "We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again." But we will be changed and so we should be – having rediscovered the importance of care and consideration for others, having discovered new ways of doing things and living together.
There is no way of avoiding the restrictions and frustrations; there is no way we can deny the grip of death felt by and experienced by so many, but the Easter message is that through death, new life emerges. Our baptism reminds us the we die with Christ so that we may also be raised with him; we can stand confident in the face of death because we know God in Jesus has overcome it and has proclaimed it as the path into the eternity which is Love, which is God.