Written in the 16th century, John Donne’s Holy Sonnets still resonate today. Especially appropriate is Sonnet ten.
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
This poem speaks to the prevailing fear that humanity has of death. The power that we allow death to have over us. To the common opinion that Death is mighty and dreadful. Something to be feared and avoided, yet according to Donne…Death has no cause to be so proud, no cause to be feared. For Donne, death is just a short sleep leading to a greater rest and deeper pleasure. All of us will die, says Donne and yet Death cannot deprive us of life…one short sleep past and we wake eternally, and death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die. This truth is an echo of scripture; Paul says I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed. Death is not the final word, it is a mere sleep…a pause…a rest …before we are changed for life eternal. We spend so much of our lives trying not to change…postponing age, battling sickness, prolonging youth…trying against all that is inevitable to keep our perishable bodies whole and beautiful. Yet, if we trust…if we believe…if we have faith then one short sleep past and all that is perishable about us will pass away and all that is imperishable will live on. Sickness, weariness, frailty, the degeneration of mind and body…all of these mortal troubles will be gone and our true selves, the heart, the spirit, the humour, the inner beauty …will be allowed to shine to their fullest potential. No longer hindered by mortal limits and distractions we can achieve perfection. So…Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting? Through Christ, the failings of Adam have been redeemed,… the original sin…not of sex, or apples or man vs woman. Rather the inability for humanity to claim responsibility for their actions and the consequences that followed. Now, in Christ’s death and resurrection the temptation and the lies, the sins and the lack of responsibility that plague humanity have all been transformed…the darkness becomes light. Death turns to life. The mortal becomes immortal and the perishable…imperishable. Our scripture says that the sting of death is in sin, and Christ has redeemed that sin, destroyed that sting. Given us victory over death, so that all who pass from this mortal life need not feel the sting of death, but rather receive the blessings of immortality. In that path, our beloved departed have lead the way, passing their short sleep into eternity. But for us who remain behind there are words of comfort as well. Christ said, Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my fathers house there are many mansions. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? We are not left, abandoned and forsaken. We grieve the loss of family and friends, but we are not alone. We are surrounded by our extended family in Christ and the whole company of saints. That is, all those who have gone to their sleep before us. So Christ says; do not let your hearts be troubled…that is not to say we cannot grieve, or be saddened, but do not lose faith and hope. For those who go ahead of us prepare the way for us…walking in the path of Christ. Following the footsteps of God… who walked with us, so that we could walk with him. Christ said…if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. For each of us is prepared a certain hope, a place at the side of the one who created us and redeemed us so that we do not need to pass through life without hope. Rather, so that we might have hope. I am the way, and the truth, and the life…said our Lord. Christ has laid out the path for us to walk…our way is marked and Christ comes to lead us step by step along that path. So we may live our lives in truth and pass this life into life eternal. Moving from the moral to immortal, from seeking Christ to being ever in his presence. From struggling day by day, to rejoicing minute by minute. We will not all die, but we will all be changed and changed for the better. Changed for all eternity, so that, like Donne says, we can live out our true lives without the fear and sting of death, but in the pleasure that comes from true rest. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory over death through our Lord Jesus Christ. May those we remember this night live ever in our memories until the day when it is our turn to sleep and to change and to join with them and all the saints in life eternal. Amen