George Carey: Faith can transform the sorrow of death

Taken from the Archbishop of Canterbury's Easter Sermon, given at Canterbury Cathedral
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The Independent Online

For Christians, Easter is a season of great joy, a time to celebrate the risen Christ and the triumph of life over death. But this Easter, we are all too aware of loss and bereavement with the sad passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.

There will be time in the coming days to pay full tribute to the Queen Mother and to celebrate all she meant to so many people over so many years. For now perhaps we may do best to call to mind the great depth and simplicity of her own Christian faith. It was a faith that helped to sustain her throughout her hundred and one years. A faith sustained by the knowledge that though this human life must inevitably lead to death, the sacrifice of Our Lord upon the Cross means that death is not the last word.

We have an eternal resting place with God the Father who calls us home – as he has called her home.

But if that is to be the end of all our journeys, how are we to travel through this earthly life? In the Gospel, Jesus gently asks Mary Magdalene: "Whom do you seek?"; and in the Epistle we are urged to "seek those things that are above".

I recall reading, as a student, that great work of philosophy, Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. And I remember being jolted by Kant's argument that there are three questions that go to the heart of all knowledge: What can I know? What ought I to do? What can I hope for? They are questions that are worth exploring.

"What can I know?" I have just returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a group of about 70 fellow pilgrims. It was a remarkable experience that helped to bring us closer to Jesus and his teaching. But it also made us realise how much we don't know about the life of Christ. There are at least two possible sites for the Annunciation; two places where the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand might have occurred; three possible Emmauses; two possible places where the angels sang to the Shepherds. And so on.

Strangely enough, though, there is only one firm tradition about the location of the burial and resurrection of Jesus – the place where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now stands. It is not the most beautiful and peaceful spot in the world – but from earliest times the witness of the Church has said firmly: "Here is the heart of the faith."

And whatever the geographical facts, there can be no doubt that in a spiritual sense, this is true. There can be no Christianity without the death and resurrection of Christ. If we want to trace the story of Christian faith, the end is where we start – with the meaning of the death of Jesus and his resurrection.

It was these events which brought the disciples to believe that Jesus is the Son of God. In other words, the resurrection was no "add on" to a great life but at the very heart of that greatness. Indeed, so central is the resurrection that every book in the New Testament testifies to it. It is the power of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that has literally changed the lives of millions of people. It remains the heartbeat of our faith.

We all have to live with uncertainty and the possibility of tragedy. Death may come at the end of a long and rewarding life, or it may come with a great deal of life still to be lived.

I am reminded of friends who lost their teenage son when, dashing down the stairs, he tripped and broke his neck. How can parents begin to come to terms with such a tragedy?

In this case, the boy's mother has not denied her grief, but nor has she allowed herself to be overwhelmed with bitterness and anger. She has taken it to the Cross and allowed the pain to bring her through to resurrection. It is when you see the transformation of an individual from the deepest grief to such a living trust and hope that you realise the power of the death and resurrection of Christ to renew and liberate.

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