Hope is a universal human experience. It is an attitude of mind and heart by which people anticipate the future and are better able to live in the present, especially if that is a difficult time. Hope depends for its credibility on confidence that the goal anticipated can be achieved. The current pandemic is testing our hope for a return to the freedom of movement, near and far, that we enjoyed before its arrival. How miserable would our world become if our hopes prove fruitless?
So, when the Anglican funeral service uses the words
We here commit the body of NN, to be buried, earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes, in sure and certain hope (emphasis mine) of the resurrection to eternal life,
it sounds paradoxical. If something is certain there is no need to hope for it. If it is hoped for but not yet experienced or only partially, how can it be certain? Yet, this is the nature of religious hope. Faith and hope are closely aligned for Jews and Christians. And even if we have differing beliefs about the future God may bring about after we die, I assume that we agree that our hope is in God alone.
This reflection is about the Christian hope in life beyond physical death. It is a personal look at what can be understood about the paradox of a hope that is sure and certain; a hope which begins in this life and yet is also, always a hope in the future.
As an Anglican priest I am often conducting funerals and memorial services. In truth, I find this part of my ministry to be particularly demanding but satisfying. I do not recall a time when I was unaware that death takes those we love, and can do so suddenly and prematurely. Before she married my father, my mother had been widowed, with one daughter, my ‘big’ half-sister. My father spoke of his mother dying in childbirth when he was four. My half-sister’s second child died of a heart condition before I had started school.
So, I knew about death as a small child. I also knew about the teaching of my Christian faith that death is entry to a new, transformed life.