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Sunday 3rd May 2020 – Online Eucharist
Two or three weeks ago there was a news item on BBC Look North which made a considerable impression on me. It concerned a man – in his early- to mid-seventies, I should think – whose name I can’t quite remember, except that it was unusual. His first name sounded rather more like a surname – something like Lyle – although I don’t think that was it. Anyway, whatever his name actually was, Lyle’s what I’m going to call him.
The news report began with pictures of what has now become a rather familiar ritual of a restored Covid-19 patient being discharged from hospital through a line of applauding NHS staff. Nothing was mentioned as being of particular note about Lyle, compared with anyone else who’d survived, but perhaps the staff had glimpsed something in him of what came across in the interview that followed.
Lyle lived, as I recall, somewhere near Middlesbrough and he seemed to be fairly well-off. Interviewed in his garden, the house in the background looked rather like a country house or a modest stately home. He described something of what he’d been through: the struggle to breathe, the wonderful medical and nursing staff, and his weight loss, about a third of his body weight. What made such a lasting impression on me, though, was his characterisation of what his life was like having come through the illness. It was utterly different. In the first place, he was just so grateful to be alive. Secondly, having been through his ordeal, he was now experiencing life in a completely new way. It was as if he was encountering everything for the first time, and it was all full of joy, wonder and delight. Previously, he’d taken life for granted, perhaps, but now he understandably treasured every single breath. Birdsong was exquisite, the beauty of flowers overwhelmed him, and he said he could happily live on NHS food every day of his life, so fantastic did it taste! He seemed to me like someone who’d been released after a long spell in captivity. Now he was totally liberated and utterly exuberant as a result. So heightened was his newly-acquired appreciation of the sheer wonder and gift of life, it was as if he’d been born again. And this new birth had about it a quality of abundance.
‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly,’ said Jesus. Whenever I visualise abundance, the image that comes immediately to mind is that of the Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, which I visited when I was 18, where gallons and gallons and gallons of water endlessly cascade over a sheer drop. Something of this kind of abundance is conveyed in the story of the Wedding at Cana, where Jesus transforms gallons of water into wine. So, too, in the miraculous transformation of just five barley loaves and two fish into enough food to feed 5000 people, after which there are still 12 baskets-full left over. All this is a symbol, of course, of the unending, limitless nature of God’s life.
This life, though, isn’t marked primarily by quantity but quality. When Jesus also speaks in John’s Gospel of the gift of eternal life, the instinctive way we conceive of this is in terms of quantity of life, of life that doesn’t come to an end as a result of death. Eternal life, literally meaning ‘the life of the age to come,’ isn’t so much to do with longevity, though, as with the divine life-charged quality of every moment, to which we’re invited to wake up. I’ve no idea what Lyle’s religious beliefs are and, in one sense, they’re of little consequence, because Lyle’s transformed perspective demonstrates that he now experiences precisely this quality of eternal life at first hand; he savours every moment, cherishes the tiniest things, and seemingly vibrates in harmony with every aspect of life as it unfolds for him, as if life itself were a completely new discovery.
Lyle’s brush with death, though, also brings to light, a paradox that lies at the heart of life and which the gospel itself illuminates, which is that in order truly to wake up, to know and live this quality of life in abundance, we have to be prepared to let go of it, to die. Real life can only ever be lived in an open-handed way. This is what Jesus tries to tell Nicodemus, that we have to undergo a death of sorts in order to experience another birth, one which requires us to open our hands and let go of what we cling to – life as we think we know it – in order to receive life as we can scarcely imagine it, and yet which is our birthright. We have to be born from above, from the Spirit, the Lord the Giver of Life, and live every moment in freedom, trust and abandonment, for the wind blows where it chooses.
In order to enter through the gate of the sheepfold of which Jesus speaks, we have to let go of our ego, to die to our small, limited, narrow self, and awaken to a larger, unlimited self, which embraces all things and all people, and whose nature is love. This is the self which Jesus reveals, and this is why he himself is the gate to the sheepfold, because he lives not from the ego but from the expansive, inclusive, unlimited spaciousness of love. This is the shepherd-voice of real life and love, which knows that its truth sounds only in the letting go of self. By contrast, it’s the ego that’s the thief or bandit trying to climb in by another way for its own narrow, self-centred motives. It’s only by dying that we discover the real quality of life, one which is indestructible, and which is God’s gift to all, whether they know it or not.
In one sense, we can be grateful, perhaps, if we haven’t had to endure what Lyle’s been through. Covid-19 is having devastating consequences for many. What price would we be prepared to pay, though, I wonder, to experience life as Lyle experiences it now in the wake of Covid-19? And how might we begin to experience life as he does without having to undergo a similar brush with physical death? In small and simple ways, perhaps, like taking time to appreciate the sheer gift of life in all its many aspects, in the delicate and intricate beauty of a flower, in the kaleidoscopic taste of food, in the smallest of everyday acts of kindness, love and compassion that sustain us. Even just being aware of the miracle of the breath and being grateful for this breath that we’re breathing right now, as if it were our first – or our last. Then, with time and patience and practice, we might begin to experience every moment as filled with life in abundance.
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