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DEATH, AND SORROW FOR THE DEAD.
1 Thessalonians, iv. 13, 14.—“But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died, and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with Him.”
THE most tremendous fact before every man is death. “It is appointed unto men once to die.”7575 Hebrews, ix. 27. The shadows of an unknown future lie upon the brightest activities of existence, and the stillness of “night” awaits all the healthful vigour of the “day.” It is not to be wondered at that men have been fascinated by the fact of death, and that they have sought to idealise it in many forms, some dark and gloomy, others cheerful and hopeful; some mirroring their sadness and terror, others their faith and aspiration.130
It is by no means true that the brighter forms of imagery by which death has been depicted have been confined to Christianity. The winged genius brooding over the dead with thoughtful gaze—the inverted torch—the soaring butterfly,—are all creations of pagan imagination, designed to illuminate the future or to soothe the sorrowing. Euphemistic expressions such as those in the text are as old as literature itself. Sleep and death are twin children both in Greek and Latin poetry.7676 Hesiod, Theog., 212; Æneid, vi. 278. Yet it will hardly be denied that it is only in Christian literature and art that the full idea of death as one of hopefulness and not of despair—of joy and peace, and not of darkness and terror—has been realised.
Pre-Christian genius rose above the mere gloomy externals of dissolution. It was able to look away from the lifeless body and the darkened sepulchre. It had no love for those insignia of decay which have been rife at various times in Christian sepulture, and pervaded many ruder forms of Christian art. Ideas of rest, and in some degree of welcome, were associated with the grave. To the ancient Hebrew it was the meeting-place of kindred—the last home of 131fathers who had gone before. Abraham died full of years, and was gathered to his people.7777 Genesis, xxv. 8. Jacob was buried in the place of his fathers Abraham and Isaac, and where he had buried Leah.7878 Ibid. xlix. 31. Of David and others it is written that they slept with their fathers.7979 1 Kings, xi. 21. The same ideas occur in classical writers—the same thought of a final rest where trouble shall no more come, and of a sleep in which there shall be no dreams.8080 Plato, Apolog., xxxii.
But withal, the pre-Christian conception of death was joyless and unhopeful. It embraced rest, but mainly as a negation of existing unrest. There was no brightness nor assured happiness in the prospect. Hades was an abode of desolation, clothed only with the dreary poplar and stunted asphodel, where thin ghosts wandered in misery. The future life of the Hebrews, if it was clear to them at all, was hardly more cheering. “In death,” says the Psalmist, “there is no remembrance of Thee: in the grave who shall give Thee thanks?”8181 Psalm vi. 5. “The dead praise not the Lord, neither any that go down into silence.”8282 Psalm cxv. 17. “The grave cannot praise Thee; death cannot celebrate Thee: they that go down into 132the pit cannot hope for Thy truth.”8383 Isaiah, xxxviii. 18. There is not much to comfort or to inspire with hope in such words as these. It is only in the light of the Christian resurrection that the idea of death becomes transfigured, and the image of that sleep to which our mortal life sinks at last becomes significant not merely of relief or insensibility, but of a higher life of blissful activity to which it is destined to awaken.
I. There is nothing more marvellous in the history of Christianity than the change which it wrought in men’s consciousness of the future. The change is one stamped into the very life of humanity, however it may be explained. Whereas men had previously thought of death as only a great darkness, or a dreamless and perpetual sleep, they began to think of it as a change from darkness to light, and as a sleep with a glorious awakening. The brightness and joy were no longer here. This was not the true life from which men should shrink to part. All was brighter in the future; the higher life was above. Death was not only welcome, but joyfully welcome. To die was gain. It was “to depart, and be with Christ; which is far better.” This was not merely the experience of an enthusiastic 133apostle. It became the overwhelming experience of hundreds and thousands. Death was swallowed up in victory. “death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” was the triumphant echo from Jerusalem to Rome, and from Antioch to Alexandria, in thousands of hearts, that had but lately known no hope and shared no enthusiasm,—not even the enthusiasm of a common country or common citizenship.
What is the explanation of all this? What was it that sent such a thrill of hopeful anticipation through a world dying of philosophic despair and moral perplexity and indifference? Was it any higher speculation? any intellectual discovery? any eclectic accident or amalgam of Jewish inspiration with Hellenic thought? Men had everywhere—in Greece and Rome, in Alexandria and Jerusalem—been trying such modes of reviving a dead world, of reawakening spiritual hopefulness; but without success. No mere opinion or combination of opinions wrought this great change. Men did not learn anything more of the future than they had formerly known; no philosopher had discovered its possibilities or unveiled its secrets. But there had gone forth from a few simple men, and from one of more learning and power than the others, the faithful 134saying that “Christ is risen indeed.” “Now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first-fruits of them that slept.”8484 1 Corinthians, xv. 20. And it was this suddenly-inspired faith that raised the world from its insensibility and corruption, and kindled it with a new hope—and the joy of a life not meted by mortal bounds, but “incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away.”8585 1 Peter, i. 4.
It was on the strength of this assurance that St Paul sought to comfort the Thessalonian brethren. They had been—from what causes are not said—in anxiety as to the fate of their departed friends. They seem to have doubted whether these friends would share with them in the resurrection of the dead and the joy of the second coming of the Lord. The apostle assured them that they had no need to be in trouble. The departed were safe with God, and the same great faith in the death and resurrection of Christ which sustained themselves was the ground of confidence for all.
There is no other ground of confidence for the future. In the light of Christ’s resurrection alone does death assume or retain for us any higher meaning than for the ancient world. Apart from this faith, it is merely the cessation 135of being. We may call it a “sleep,” as of old, and welcome it as grateful rest after the long or hard work of the day. We may be able to look upon it with resignation; it may not have for us the shadowy horror that it had for the youthful world—for this reason, if no other, that life is hardly so fresh and beautiful to us as it was to those earlier races which have given us our highest literature. As the world has grown older, it has grown more perplexed and thoughtful. Ours is neither the bright serenity of Hellenic genius nor the exuberant satisfaction of Hebrew prophecy. We do not spend our life in the same sunshine of eager enjoyment. The world is less a scene of content, except to the very young; and this is in some degree owing to Christianity itself, which has wrought deeper, and tenderer, and more pathetic chords of experience into human life. It may be easier, therefore, for us to die—to part with this present life, and go down to the grave wearied with its cares or tired of its perplexities. It is a mistake to exaggerate in the interests of religion the feelings with which men are supposed to meet death, as if it must always wear to them apart from Christian faith an aspect of terror. This is not verified by experience. As mere rest—mere cessation from sensibility—it 136may be welcome. In anticipation terrible, it may yet in its occurrence be without alarm. As we look towards it from the opening gates of life, or the full enjoyment of healthy activity, we may shrink from it; and it has aspects which no philosophy can ever brighten. It is always painful to part with friends and children, to break up the clustering ties of sweet affection and the home of family love. But the dying one is often strangely prepared by natural fitness for the coming event. The decaying physical system adapts itself to its end, and the ebbing life goes forth peacefully on its unknown way. In itself, and merely for itself, death need not be terrible, and often is not.
But it is the light of the higher life in Christ which alone glorifies it. And unless this light has shone into our hearts, I know not whence hope can reach us. We may be resigned or peaceful. We may accept the inevitable with a calm front. We may be even glad to be done with the struggle of existence, and leave our name to be forgotten and our work to be done by others. We may be able to say to ourselves, if not in the sense of St Paul—“I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course”—I am ready to lie down and die, and cease to be, if this is my fate. 137But in such a mood of mind there is no cheerfulness, no spring of hope. With such a thought St Paul could neither comfort himself nor comfort the Thessalonians. Nay, for himself he felt that he would be intensely miserable if he had only such a thought. “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.”8686 1 Corinthians, xv. 19.
Hope in death can only spring from the principle of personal immortality; and this principle has no root save in Christ. It is not enough that we shall live in the memory of our friends, or that humanity shall live and flourish when we are gone. I do not say that there is no dignity in such thoughts, or even no consolation in them to some minds. It is better to have faith in the progress of humanity than no faith at all. It is better to be remembered than forgotten, and to have the immortality of a good name if no other. But men cannot find strength or comfort in such generalisations. They crave for a personal life—for communion with other lives—and with Him who is life, and whose life is the light of men. This, and this alone, is the faith which makes men patient in trouble and hopeful in death, which sanctifies bereavement 138and illumines thought. Nature tells us nothing of the future. Science knows, and can know, nothing of it. On this side, no voice from behind the veil ever reaches man. No sparks of immortal presage rise from the ashes of scientific analysis. All its suggestions leave us where we are, or mockingly sift the sources of life only to hint our mortality. If we quit the living Christ, we quit all hold of the higher life. “If Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.”8787 1 Corinthians, xv. 14. Heaven becomes a dumb picture; and death—euphemise it as we may—merely blank annihilation. We may say of our dear ones, as we lay them in the dust, that they have fallen asleep; but the gentle words have no true meaning. The sleep is without an awakening. The higher and hopeful side of the image is cut away. The night becomes a perpetual slumber,8888 Catullus, v. 4. on which no morning shall ever arise. It is only in the light of the resurrection that the phrase represents a reality, and the idea of death is transfigured into a nobler life. Let us believe that behind the veil of physical change there is a spiritual Power from which we. have come—one who is the Resurrection and the Life—in whom, if we believe, we 139shall never die,—and we may wait our change, not only with resignation, but with hope, and carry our personal affections and aspirations forward to another and a better being, in which they may be satisfied and made perfect.
II. In this belief, also, we may have comfort for the loss of our friends. Nay, “if we believe that Jesus died, and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with Him.” This is the sure conclusion from our higher faith—our dead ones are resting in Jesus. The life of affection and of faithful duty which has gone from us is with the Lord. The vesture has been changed, but “the mortal has put on immortality.” The faith, the hope, the love which lived for us is no longer incarnated in visible form beside us; but their spiritual quality is imperishable, and they have only been transferred to another sphere of manifestation and activity. They have gone from our sight; but they not only exist in our memory—although they also do this, shrined in its most sacred niche; they are with God. They have passed into glory; and their personal lives subsist in immediate communion with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and all the saints of God 140who have gone before them into bliss. There is nothing for which there is less warrant in Scripture than any speculation as to the state of the departed—their occupations or special modes of activity; but it is everywhere implied that their personality continues. They are in heaven the same personal spiritual beings they were on earth, only made perfect in holiness. They are beyond our care and service; but they are with the Lord, “which is far better.” He knoweth them that are His, and God will bring them with Him.
It is this safety of the departed with God which the apostle urges as a reason why we should not sorrow for them as others “who have no hope.” This is our faith, that our dear ones are secure in God’s keeping; and it is unreasonable, therefore, that we should lament them as if we had lost them for ever. Lament them we cannot help doing; and no words of Scripture forbid our doing. Neither here nor anywhere is Christian teaching untrue to nature. And when friends or loved ones are taken away, the cry of nature cannot be restrained. The faithful and fond heart bleeds beneath the stroke. The blank may be felt irretrievably. The sense of loss, and of wistful, unhealed regret, may never pass away. The shadow of a great bereavement may lie ever 141after on our lives. There is not only nothing wrong in this—such a shadowed experience may work as a hallowing influence, and deepen within us many veins of tenderness and sympathy and love, yielding “the peaceable fruits of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.” Let us not suppose for a moment that the apostle would have us to deal harshly with sacred memories, or to banish from our hearts a chastening and holy sorrow. By no means. He would only have us not to sorrow as if we were without Christian hope—as if we doubted or despaired that our dear ones were with God, and safe with Him.
A sorrow which either refuses to accept facts, or to cease from anxieties and regrets which are no longer practicable, is an unchristian sorrow—for this reason, amongst others, that the duties of life await those who have suffered most. And these duties we can never put away from us. They are ours, and they cling to us whether we will or not. The dead have gone beyond our solicitude. Nothing we can ever more do can affect them. Let us cherish their memory, and weep beside their tomb, and recall their virtues. But let us also take comfort in the thought that they have entered into their rest, and are beyond 142all our trouble. Moreover, let us remember that the living remain to us. They are our care. They may be our anxiety. While dear ones gone before are with the Lord, dear ones who survive may be wandering away from Him—wounding Him by their lives, or putting His cause to an open shame. Our main business is not with the dead, but with the living, whom we may succour and help and guide. Let the love of the past be enshrined in our heart, and the thought of the departed live in our memory—a sacred fire, consuming all frivolous and unworthy affections; but it is the work of the present hour, and the care of those who need our care, which should engage our anxiety and task our energy. Our concern is not for the child resting on his father’s bosom and sheltered in a happy home, but for him who is entering into the world with its temptations, or who may be astray in darkness and unable to find his way. Our thoughts follow not the return home, but the uncertain outset; not the peril that is over, but the danger that still threatens; not the soldier who has fought a good fight and brought home the spoils of victory, but him who may be still in the midst of the battle wrestling for very life. And so it is always where there are still 143difficulties to be overcome and duties to be done—good to be wrought either for ourselves or others—that our concern should lie. It is not sorrow in itself, but sorrow with anxiety, that the apostle would have us cease to cherish for the dead. They are happier in God’s care than in our own. We cannot touch them by our solicitudes, nor soothe them by our ministrations, nor move them by our prayers. So far from repining, we should therefore be thankful, if we cannot rejoice, that they are beyond our feeble keeping—that God has taken them to His own everlasting arms, and set them in one of those “many mansions” where He has prepared a place for them, and whence they shall “no more go out.” “And I heard a great voice out of heaven, saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”8989 Revelation, xxi. 3, 4.
Such a prospect is not one to make us sorrow 144as others which have no hope. Should our eyes no more behold loved ones who have left us, and upon whom our lives leaned more than we ever knew before their arms were finally unclasped from ours, and the shelter they made was for ever taken away,—let us not yield to weakness or despair. But let us look beyond the darkness to a higher light. Let us carry our thoughts from earth to heaven; and again, when the darkness is past, let us remember the duties of the day—assured that in due season we, too, shall reap if we faint not, and enter into our rest. “And I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Write, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them.”9090 Revelation, xiv. 13. “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.”9191 1 Corinthians, xv. 58.
Such worthy aims and hopeful aspirations should especially mingle with our sorrow when, as now, we are led to recall the departure of the wise and good; and our thoughts for the dead are thoughts not only of love, but of reverent 145affection and of deep respectful tenderness. The late Princess,9292 The Princess Hohenlohe-Langenburg, who died at Baden-Baden, Sept. 23, 1872. The remarkable character of the Princess, “her fine intelligence, and sweet, serene nature,” will be found noticed in Mr Martin’s Life of the Prince Consort, ii. 478. sister to our gracious and beloved Queen, was one whose memory is justly blessed, as her life was not merely blameless, but in a rare degree a true and beautiful life,—studious of all things high and pure, lovely and of good report, thoughtful not only for her own things, but for the things of others also. It is the presence of such genuine and noble natures, faithful to duty, firm in good, ever aspiring through all weakness and imperfection, that helps us more than aught else to realise a higher and more enduring being, a spiritual sphere above and beyond us, where the unfinished good will be complete, and the aspiration become a fact; where, moreover, hearts that have taken counsel together here how to live well and do their duty fitly, shall be joined in bonds never more to be broken, and in yet loftier endeavours after all that is true and right.
Let us not fail to be followers of so Christian an example. Let such a loss, and every thought of dear ones who have passed away, inspire us with hope yet unattained, as well as with regret 146for a past that can never be regained. Let us awake from all indifference, and laying aside all pride, vanity, or self-indulgence, give ourselves faithfully and heartily to Christian work. All have work to do, trusts to be discharged, aims to be fulfilled, evil to be overcome, good to be realised. Let us not weary in well-doing. How often, alas! do we spend our days in idleness and our nights in vanity. What small occupations engross us, what poor anxieties and ambitions torment us, what paltry pleasures absorb us! The time is passing away, and we are not redeeming it; the hour of death is drawing near, and we are not preparing for it. Let us take care lest, a promise being left us of entering into rest, any of us should come short of it through unbelief or negligence. Let not science nor the world steal our hearts from God; but humbly feeling how little we know, and how much we need, may we look upward both for light and help. May we “hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering,” and run with patience the race that is set before us, so that at last we may lay hold of eternal life, and through the grave and gate of death may pass to the inheritance of the saints in light, and dwell for ever with the Lord, that where He is, 147there we may be also. The departed saints shall welcome our faithfulness for they await our coming, and without us they shall not be made perfect.
“Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you perfect in every good work to do His will, working in you that which is well-pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
Preached in Balmoral Castle,
Sunday, Sept. 29, 1872.148
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