Three times in my life, I’ve narrowly avoided being caught in a terrorist attack.
When I was an undergraduate, the IRA planted a bomb in the Reject Shop in Oxford. That afternoon, I was in a college building which was back-to-back with that shop.
When the 7/7 bombs went off on public transport in London in 2005, I was visiting a friend in Canterbury. But the previous day, I had been on a tube train, at the same time and place where one of those bombs exploded.
At 2 pm a week last Wednesday, I was just leaving Westminster Abbey. I could so easily have headed for Westminster tube station, but the friend I was with suggested we take a bus to Victoria instead. The first I knew of that afternoon’s terrible events was when I was safely on a train out of Paddington.
Once, I was driving along the M4 just outside Cardiff when a driver pulled out right in front of me, forcing me to swerve into the fast lane. My car fishtailed wildly before settling down – fortunately I didn’t hit the crash barrier or any other traffic, but it was quite a fright.
Each of those moments is one where I can rightly say, “but for the grace of God, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Sometimes, the worst does happen. On Tuesday, the BBC showed a personal reflection by the footballer, Rio Ferdinand. His wife died just 10 weeks after being diagnosed with a terminal cancer, and now Rio has to be “Mum” as well as “Dad” to his children.
Lent forces us to face up to the dark side of life. In recent weeks we’ve been challenged to tackle those faults we are only too aware of, and face up to the hidden faults we don’t want to admit. Now we must confront the ultimate challenge: we’re all going to die. That’s why it’s so significant that Our Lord didn’t stop Lazarus from dying.
Jesus could have healed Lazarus by a word, even at a distance, as soon as the messengers came to him.
Jesus could have set out for Bethany immediately, and might have arrived in time to prevent him dying.
But no, Our Lord tarried for two days in the wilderness stating that this sickness “would not end in death”. St John says that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead as a sign for us. God’s plan is that we pass through death and enter into eternal life. St Paul also acknowledges this, speaking about our mortal bodies.
Knowing that we’re going to die forces us to ask important questions. Knowing that it’s possible for any one of us to be taken by a swift disease or a sudden accident means that we shouldn’t wait until we’re retired to face up to them.
First question – Have you made a funeral plan?
If you live without a partner, it’s a great kindness to your family to leave clear instructions about what you want. Do you have ideas about music or Bible readings? Is it important to you that your funeral is a Requiem Mass? It often happens these days that when grown-up children are not practicing Catholics, they choose not to have a Mass for their parent. It’s not essential to have a Mass at your funeral – Masses can be offered at other times – but if you have Catholic friends who will mourn your passing, why wouldn’t you choose a Mass for them to pray at? And suggesting the music is very helpful when your family are not churchgoers. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help to plan your funeral while you are still healthy – Deacon Steve or myself, or a member of our parish bereavement group, would be happy to advise you.
Wills are important. It’s only be making a will that you can ensure that your property is used in the way you wish after your death. You don’t need to use a lawyer to write your will, but it’s probably a good idea to do so if there is a house or land involved. The cheapest way to access a lawyer is to wait until November and find one who is part of the WillAid initiative – instead of paying a legal fee, you make a donation to one of nine nominated charities. There are two Catholic charities in the mix – the Scottish and Irish countparts of CAFOD.
Third question – if you are living with a partner, Are you married?
Marriage is important. Marriage is the way that two people register their relationship with the Government. Being married protects your rights to your partner’s pension, property and possessions. There is no such thing as a “common-law marriage”. Just because two people of similar age live in the same house, this proves nothing. They could be lodgers, lovers, or limbering up to leave. How does the Government know that the relationship is one where you want your partner to inherit everything you own? Simple – you register it. And registering a family relationship is what we traditionally call marriage. This is one of the reasons why our Church says it is so important to be married before starting a family. Why would you want your partner and children to be left without that legal protection if the worst did happen suddenly?
I don’t have time to speak today about the spiritual side of bereavement. I would simply point you to St Martha, who had every right to be furious with Jesus for allowing her to live through the death of her brother. Yet Martha puts her trust the Lord, knowing he will raise her brother to everlasting life at the end of time. At Easter, we will celebrate the amazing news that eternal life awaits us following bodily death.
They say only two things are certain in life: death, and taxes. Most of us will never be anywhere a terrorist attack, so let’s resist the temptation to give worry and energy to something that probably won’t happen to us. Instead, let’s do something positive about something that certainly will happen. By making a funeral plan, we can prepare well for death – and by getting married and making a will, we can even do something about the taxes!
The art of dying well – Catholic pastoral care of the dying.
The Government’s view – speech by Iain Duncan Smith MP.
A Sunday Times article – warning, some crude language!