Go forth upon thy journey Christian soul! Go from this world; Go in the Name of God the Omnipotent Father, who created thee! Go in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, Son of the living God, who bled for thee: Go in the name of the Holy Spirit, who hath been poured out on thee!
Go on thy course; and may thy place today be found in peace, and may thy dwelling be the holy mount of Sion: through the same, through Christ our Lord.
(John Henry Newman; 1801-90)
It is not given to all of us to know when our death is near, or to have the luxury of strength and clarity of mind to prepare for that threshold, but for the follower of Jesus, it is always possible to be sure of our destination! That is because of the complete assurance we have that through our faith in Jesus, in his effective salvation of us, we can know that we are now acceptable to an utterly holy God, and that our place in glory is guaranteed to us. We can rejoice now in the peace that comes from knowing that our state of health and mind at the end will not separate us from the love of God through Christ, that no amount of confusion, pain or forgetfulness can undo that great work upon the cross.
The words at the top of this blog are another extract from the Dream of Gerontius, the poem by Newman which was so memorably set to music by Edward Elgar. This passage in particular is achingly beautiful – I love to think I could be listening to it when my time comes to leave this world, because it speaks so strongly of the confidence which I have, and which those who love me can share even as they let me go. It is a great valediction, the commending of a soul to the faithfulness of the God who has promised and done all that is needed, so that even in the dissolution of imminent death, there need be no fear. Our confidence rests in the character and revealed will of God, whose work of redeeming his beloved children was accomplished at such unimaginable cost. This God, will never set aside that sacrifice or break his covenant with us and we give ourselves wholly and confidently up to him.
I believe that the bible makes it clear that death, the destruction of the physical body and the awful separation from all that life and love mean, was never part of God’s original plan for us, His beloved children. Over and again it is described as the ‘wages of sin’, the direct result of the rebellion which humankind staged against God’s authority and rightful supremacy in our lives. Surely this is why we never get used to it, why the prospect is so awful. It is indeed an affront to the image of God which is in everyone, that we should be bereaved and die.
But in Christ, we see that for all who have faith in him, in his power to save, the apparent finality of death is not real, not true! The apostle Paul, in his letter to the church in Corinth writes:-
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
(1 Corinthians 15.20-22)
As I grow older, and more and more of those dear to me pass ahead through the dark valley of death, the truth of our eternal life to come is more and more precious. It allows me to experience the loss of loved ones with hope, though not without grief. It equips me to face my own likely experience of frailty, illness, pain and perhaps confusion with confidence – because NOTHING can separate me from the love of God which is made manifest in Christ Jesus.
There may indeed be troubles ahead, times of great darkness and sorrow – none of us can escape the valley of the shadows, the only question is whether for us it will be a long journey, or a brief crossing. But we have a confidence which is gloriously embodied in the words with which I began this blog, resting upon the very character of the God above all, the Lover of our souls.
May we be a blessing to all those whom we know are close to the valley of shadows, reminding them of the sure and certain hope which they have, of our Lord’s presence in the darkness, and his welcoming embrace in the glorious light which lies ahead.