Thursday 27 December 2007

A funeral homily on Christmas Eve

by Kim Fabricius, Christmas Eve 2007

This is the homily Kim preached on Christmas Eve at the funeral of a young woman, not yet fifty, extremely talented but deeply troubled, who died of alcohol-related illnesses. The chief mourners were her father and brother; her uncle gave the personal tribute. The woman’s name has, of course, been changed.

I’ve got two children. They are both thirty next year. One is a lawyer – to her parent’s shame, I kid her (lawyer jokes!) – the other is trying to make it as a writer. Someone recently said to me, “You did a good job there.” Did we? I’ve always subscribed to Philip Larkin’s more cynical take on child rearing: that your mum and dad are as likely to fill you with their faults as their virtues.

I also believe that, generally, parents can take neither the credit nor the blame for how their children turn out. There is nature as well as nurture, and there are so many worldly contingencies beyond our control. Children from seemingly model homes hit the skids; kids raised in dire circumstances win Booker prizes. The talented self-destruct; the ordinary achieve the exceptional. Who can fathom the souls of others? Who knows the demons with which they wrestle? Who knows their own soul? Who escapes fantasy and self-deceit? And relationships – I ache for you, yet I am always getting in your way. We are mysteries to ourselves and to each other.

The fact is that only God sees the heart, and in spite of what he sees, accepts us just as we are. Julian of Norwich went so far as to say that God does not need to forgive us, because God cannot be offended, God just gives and gives – and waits patiently for his own wayward children to return home.

That is why in the end, at a funeral, when we commend the dead – as we commend Louise – into God’s keeping, we must not despair that, despite such promise and determination, such warmth and generosity – and while poignantly remembering times of fulfilment at work and joy with family and friends – that she finally lost the plot. In fact, Jesus said that it is precisely those who seem to have life all worked out who will find it hard to enter the kingdom of heaven, while the fragile and the fraught, those whom, finally, the world breaks, because they must ultimately trust in God’s grace alone, they will find themselves part of a larger plot, a narrative that ultimately makes sense, the love story of God and his people, the divine comedy.

For what it’s worth, here is my vision of death and judgement. You find yourself sitting on God’s knee. He embraces you. And then he shows you what your life was really all about. A terrifying prospect, for sure – except for one thing: it is the Father’s lap, the Father’s arms, and the Father who looks at you with the same besotted love with which he looks at his only Son Jesus, who was born and lived and died and lives forever, for each and every one of us.

In his little book The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Mitch Albom writes: “This is the greatest gift God can give you: to understand what happened in your life. To have it explained. It is the peace you have been searching for.” It is the peace we must believe that Louise has now found.

A crematorium is hardly the place to be on Christmas Eve, but exactly the place to end with the words of the Calypso Carol:

        Trumpets sound, the angels sing,
        listen to what they say:
        that we will live forevermore
        because of Christmas Day.


gracie said...

Thank you for posting this. I find it profoundly comforting.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Kim. That's beautiful.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Kim.
This kind of enfleshing of theology is profound.

Anonymous said...

Dear Kim,
On the basis of this kind of sermon at a funeral, would you describe yourself as a universalist? It seems like that kind of address.

Anonymous said...

Hi Anonymous,

The short answer is: Yes.

Happy New Year!

Anonymous said...

And Happy New Year to you too, Kim!
Thanks for that answer and your (customary) clarity. As someone who is not a universalist I have often wondered what folks of the Barthian stripe actually do with their concept of a 'hoping/praying-for-universalism-even-if-not-explicitly-teaching-it-universalism' when it comes to the pastoral agonies of a situation such as your Christmas eve sermon. It seems to me that all such tendentious leanings need, in that circumstance, to do a lot more than be tendentious and so it has been helpful to see how you have gone about it. (Although, as you have said, you would explicitly call yourself a universalist rather than one of the hopeful variety). Appreciate the interaction.

Anonymous said...

Hi again Anonymous (Ben),

Do you know Gregory MacDonald's The Evangelical Universalist? MacDonald (a pseudonym) calls himself "a non-dogmatic dogmatic universalist", because he confesses "to not being 100% certain" that his universalism is correct. I like that self-appellation, for its theological modesty.

Anonymous said...

Thanks again Kim - I'll certainly look up that book.

For what it's worth, my own feelings here are that 'theological modesty' on this issue is theologically fashionable because it is, of course, humble and non-dogmatic about eschatology (an area where modern theology perhaps least tolerates dogmatism?)

But my struggle with this is that the biblical witness seems to be uniformally less modest in its outlines of the future - those who believe in Jesus are raised to eternal life (John 5); those who disobey the gospel are shut out from the presence of the Lord and punished with everlasting destruction (2 Thess. 1:8-9).

In modern theology the 'gospel' seems to me often to be taken as being unremittingly good news ... yet the apostle here states that it is also something to be obeyed and to not do so has eschatological consequences.

I am not meaning to be dogmatic here ... I am genuinely unclear as to how else we should read these passages, especially when the cure of souls is entrusted to us as ministers of the Word.



Stephen said...

Ben, you raise a good point, *unremittingly good news* doesn't seem to square with 2 Thes. 1:8-9 and other passages.

Kim, how do you deal with the passages that confront universalism? Sadly, it seems that you have given false hope to a family while in a vulnerable time.

Anonymous said...

Hi Stephen,

The issue of universalism has been much discussed on this blog - and others - including (favourably and splendidly) David Congdon's "The Fire and the Rose", as well, of course, by major theologians, from the classical (e.g. Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor) to the modern (including Barth, von Balthasar, Rahner, and Moltmann). Suffice it to say that these thinkers demonstrate that it is possible to "confront" the passages that you mention - and, of course, there are universalist passages that double predestinarians must confront, though proof-texting is ultimately a barren hermeneutic - the res really turns on Christology. Suffice it to say that the issue is on the table, not in the files; and that I gave the family a contestable hope, whereas presumably you would have given them no hope at all.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Kim. I agree with you about the pointlessness of proof-texting and the need for a deeper approach.

On the Christology issue, it seems that in the 2 Thess. passage it is precisely Christology which confronts the issue of universalism - it is Jesus himself who is the agent of future punishment and exclusion in everlasting destruction.

Can you help me with getting my head round how an exegetical approach which sees the res turning on Christology might deal with this text? I am not trying to be difficult here, I am genuinely interested in what you are saying.



Anonymous said...

Hi Ben,

You refer, I guess, to II Thessalonians 1:9. It is, admittedly, a - perhaps the - most problematical "hell" text for universalists, but not insurmountably so.

First, there is the problem of translation. Several commentators suggest that we need not and should not take the word aionios to mean "everlasting" (it literally refers to "the age to come"), nor the word apo to suggest being "separated from" [the presence of the Lord] (GNB) (the word "separated" is epexegetical - you could equally supply "comes from"). The "punishment", that is could be temporary, purgative, and ultimately redemptive.

However, even if that is wrong, this is only one Pauline text - indeed deutero-Pauline text - and there are other much more important Pauline texts which suggest that apostle, at his most profound, had a universalist vision (including Romans 5:18, I Corinthians 15:22, Colossians 1:20, Philippians 2:11, and Ephesians 1:10).

In any case, what I have in mind by the res of Christology has to do with a more comprehensive picture of Jesus - a gestalt, if you like - in the redemptive purposes of God, which will include, for example, his "character" in the gospel accounts of his life and teaching, and his "work" in his suffering and death - and resurrection - all in the context of the history of Israel, and - most importantly - revelatory of the nature of God. It is this kind of approach that compels me to reconfigure the meaning of retribution, punishment, and pain - and, with Barth, above all, election.

Sorry to be so quick and brief, but I hope what I have said may be helpful - and at least give you something to chew on!

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