Today we are back at church (St David’s, Craig y Don) for our first meditation since the start of the pandemic. But we are continuing to provide an online version as well. Today’s meditation is from me, Rev Bev.
I went to see Jean H at her care home last Monday, the first time I have been allowed in to a care home for over a year. And that was only because she was very ill.
The following night I slept badly, for various reasons, and one dream stayed with me. It was of Jean trying to escape from the care home in her nightie, climbing down the front wall of the building! I wondered, in the dream, whether I should be trying to get her back inside or encouraging her escape.
My dream was nothing to do with the care in the care home – I could see that that had been excellent. It was more to do with the indignity and distress of getting ill and infirm, confused and separated from family and friends. And what my hope for her should be. Clearly, I wanted her to escape from the situation she was in.
Anyway, as many of you will know, she died a day or two later. It seems she had escaped without my help. And I am glad.
It seems that several of our community are doing the same. Don T, Jean’s good friend, died earlier this week as well.
Virtually every day I look at the latest stats for the COVID pandemic on my tablet as shown by the BBC. And I hope each time to see a lowering of the figures for cases and deaths. Seeing the figures spiral is truly terrifying. How must it feel in India right at this moment? But seeing them come down is a strange experience too. It is very odd to find myself thinking, “Oh, only 20 people have died of COVID today. That’s great.”
Of course, it is great in the sense that the figures are going down. But it’s not great for those 20 people or their families. It’s a terrible tragedy, not lessened by the knowledge that they are only a few in number.
Every death matters because every life matters. We can’t cope with knowing about every death and every life it links to – we just don’t have the capacity. But God does. And every death matters to God because every person is precious to him. Every person is his precious creation.
I want to share with you from a book I have been reading. It’s by the archaeologist, Neil Oliver, “Wisdom of the Ancients.” From his writing, I understand that he is an atheist. But listen to what he says (p223-226 extracts, paraphrased).
6,000-7,000 years ago there were hunters making use of a coastal territory in the land we know as Denmark. They were in the habit of burying their dead, laid out in graves. The cemetery a few of them created at the place we call Vedbaek was found and excavated in the mid-1970s.
Of all the graves, the example deemed richest is one of two containing a young woman and a newborn baby together. She was likely around eighteen years old when she died, of cause or causes unknown – young to us, but can say much, now about life expectancy then? The baby was newborn at the time of death and had been laid close by the woman’s side, on her right and upon a swan’s wing.
Beyond these observable facts, all else about her – and about the infant by her side – can only be supposition, or imagination. But all the time separating us from them has allowed for a percolation of sorts, or a distillation, so that what remains is strong, potent.
It is easiest to assume that they were mother and child, those two, and drowned together in the river of birth. That their remains were treated to kindly suggest grief and love in the hearts of those left behind on its banks, only watching as the current swept loved ones away.
The newborn was given back to the world not lying naked upon the earth but nestled on that white swan’s wing. Who does such a thing, thinks of such a thing, except someone who cannot bear the thought of the loved body cold on clay? This wing of a great bird inspires no end of speculation. Maybe the baby’s spirit was to be carried aloft, into the heavens. Perhaps those left behind believed that like the migratory birds that leave when their time comes, disappearing beyond the horizon, the infant’s spirit, and the mother’s, might return to them when the time was right.
We of the twenty-first century try to hold death at bay. We are horrified by the thought, far less the sight, of it.
For 2,000 years Christians believed in life beyond the reach of death. For the last hundred years or so, in the time of modern science, we have been telling each other there is no such thing. That this version of events has made us happier in general is debatable at best. Now that we have only our span of years, however brief, death is an empty terror to be held at bay by the pursuit of endless youth.
Ten thousand years ago our ancestors imagined spirits carried aloft on the wings of swans. Our ancestors allowed for the hope of something better.
To me, the skeletons of the Vedbaek mother buried with her baby are beautiful beyond adequate description. I feel in my heart the wonder of knowing that love, and the grief that is love’s necessary travelling companion, lay waiting to be found in a grave cut thousands of years ago. Untouched, unwearied, those most human of emotions had survived time. Lovelier still is the hope borne on the wing of a swan. It implores US to live in hope…
That is Neil Oliver, contrasting the faith of the ancients, the faith of Christians and the lot of those without faith.
Well, we get to choose which we are. And I know which I would rather be.
Those of us who choose faith, choose hope – we are the story-keepers, we are the ones who keep the hope alive. We know to whom we belong and to whom we are going.
Just as Jean did. And Don. And all those many from our fellowship who have gone before us.
We will not lose heart. We will do what is necessary to send our friends on their way. And when the times comes, we trust that others will do the same for us. Because we, like them, are loved and valued. We are precious in the sight of God.