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Birth, Death and the Ecstasy of Love – The Reverend Canon Dr Christopher Collingwood (Chancellor)

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Sunday 2 February 2014 Candlemas Solemn Evensong

Haggai 2:1-9 John 2:18-22

When Sue and I were expecting our fourth child, we already had three boys. As we were driving to hospital for the birth, we were still undecided about names: we were fairly clear about the name should it be a boy, but we just couldn’t settle on a girl’s name, largely because we assumed it’d be another boy. At the moment of delivery, the midwife announced, ‘You’ve got a beautiful baby girl!’ So flummoxed by this was I that with the utmost inanity I asked, ‘Are you sure?!’

When our third son was born, the delivery wasn’t quite so comical. Towards the end of the labour, we sensed that something was seriously wrong because there was a sudden flurry of activity. The umbilical cord was being cut before the birth was complete. It became clear that it had become entwined around his neck. When he was fully delivered, he was blue and lifeless. My immediate thought was that he was dead. For about a minute there was nothing and then, all of a sudden, there was an involuntary inhalation of breath, followed by the first sound of crying. It was a moment of sheer relief and joy, but in those few moments I became acutely aware of how life and death are profoundly connected.

Those who’ve ever had the experience of being present with someone as they breathed not their first but their last breath might also know that dying can also evoke awe, wonder and mystery, just like birth. It was my privilege to be present with my wife and daughter when my mother-in-law died ten years ago. Even though she was ill and in a degree of pain, it was clear that she didn’t really want to die, not so much because she seemed to be afraid – I don’t think she was – but rather because she simply wanted to hang on to life. She was used to being in control of things and almost to the end she resisted the inevitable like mad.

Not long after eight o’clock in the morning, after a restless night, the nurses came in to make her feel more comfortable. Afterwards there was a difference. Her breathing was calmer and she seemed more peaceful and at ease. The next two hours before she died were some of the most beautiful I’d ever experienced with her. It was as if the relinquishing of life was the most natural thing in the world, as if it were a letting go not into vacancy but into something much bigger and fuller, something characterised – like birth – by a sense of the sheer miraculousness of it all, something graced with all-embracing love and compassion.

On this Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple – Candlemas – we’re presented with the profound interconnectedness of life and death. As we heard in the introduction to the service, today we’re given the opportunity, so it would seem, for one final glance back towards the birth of Christ, before turning our sights in the direction of his passion and death. There is, of course, for all of us, the sense of a journey to be made between our births and our deaths, but it would be misleading to think that birth and death are separated from each other by what comes in between, as if there were little connection between any of them. The truth of the matter is they’re all of apiece, and sometimes it’s impossible to distinguish which is which.

This is a point made well in the poem, Journey of the Magi, by TS Eliot. The journey the wise men make to the infant Christ at Epiphany is an arduous and demanding one, which unsettles and disturbs them, causing them to reconsider their frame of reference. The poem ends like this:

…were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.

For Eliot’s Magi, the distinction between birth and death is ambiguous, and this is an important truth to ponder as we prepare to make our way in procession not, on this occasion, to the crib, but to the font, the place of baptism, the place where Christians are baptised into the death and resurrection of Christ, the place also of birth.

Journey of the Magi implies that birth and death are connected because they both seem to be a ‘hard and bitter agony.’ The question arises, though, as to whether this is actually the last word on either. Certainly Jesus’ dying on the cross was a ‘hard and bitter agony,’ and as we process towards the font in a few moments, we’re invited to identify with Jesus in his journey towards suffering and death, and to find in that journey the path to life. Beyond the ‘hard and bitter agony,’ though, there’s something else that links birth and death, what might be called the ecstasy of love. Let me explain.

You and I are created to know, enjoy and live in communion with one another and all creation in the abundant, overflowing, boundless love of God. We also know that life doesn’t always feel like that. Life itself can indeed be a ‘hard and bitter agony,’ but as we reflect on why that’s the case, we become more and more aware that it has to do with our resistance, our selfishness, our self-centredness. We want things to be the way we want them to be, and when they’re not we find ourselves in conflict with ourselves, with others and with God. This causes us to suffer, to experience the ‘hard and bitter agony’ of life.

Having our egocentricity laid bare is painful. There comes a time, though, when the realisation dawns that it’s actually less destructive and painful to go on asserting our own self-centred desires and ambitions and let go into something much more expansive instead. In and through our very suffering we discover, in fact, that we’re being invited to surrender into love.

Now those of us who’re fortunate enough to know the intimacy of love in family life, among friends or with lovers, know that this kind of love isn’t a ‘hard and bitter agony;’ it’s genuinely ecstatic, in the sense that we’re taken out of ourselves by the other into a communion of love in which there aren’t any barriers. There’s just an endless, uninhibited, free flow of love, in which there’s no resistance because the sense of a separate, isolated, egocentric self is surrendered and disappears.

And it’s here that what Christians experience of God as Trinity – in whose image and likeness we’re created – is important. Fancy technical words are used to describe this, words like perichoresis – mutual indwelling – but what they’re struggling to convey is a sense that in the fullness of love there’s no struggle, no ‘hard or bitter agony,’ because there’s nothing to resist or to be resisted. Love’s experienced as a joyous pouring of itself into the other, a dying into the other, which gives birth to an overflowing abundance of love.

This is what Jesus is all about and what he comes to reveal. The fact that his death is a ‘hard and bitter agony’ is because it’s the price of overcoming our resistance with love. Through Jesus’ death, though, something new is born for the whole creation. As St Paul says, ‘If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.’

As we make our way in procession to the font, we may well be aware of the struggle that life sometimes brings. If we thought life were only ever a ‘hard and bitter agony,’ we might conclude it’s scarcely worth it. Underlying all this, though, from beginning to end, is the invitation from God to die to ourselves, to let go of ourselves, into each other and into God, so that we might be born into the love of God and give birth to the love of God in us. The promise isn’t so much of a ‘hard and bitter agony’ forever, but of the sheer ecstasy of love.

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