When I was a kid, we used to play a game.
If we were in the car and we’d drive by a cemetery we’d hold our breath. Where did that game come from? Maybe from an old superstition, not wanting to breathe in bad spirits or the spirits of the dead. Maybe it was a way for the young to flip their nose at death. Maybe it was a way to take our mind off of the fact of death itself.
Maybe we just wanted to see how long we could hold our breath. But I think there was more to it than that. I say that because I have done a lot of breath-holding in my life...especially around death.
Games in the car are one thing, but there came a time in my life when I had to confront death straight on.
There have been moments in my life when I have been witness to death. Sometimes it has been when the person who has died is surrounded by family and friends and we prepared for that moment in prayer, in story-telling, and in tears.
There have been other moments when the person was alone, virtually unknown except for perhaps a name on a license in a wallet or purse. People who have died violently, or suddenly, or was suddenly stricken with no one to help. It is these people I think of when we say the Great Litany and we pray “From dying suddenly and unprepared, Good Lord, deliver us.”
For some of these, I could still hold my breath. I would keep these at arms length with a clinical eye. Yes, my heart would tug, but these—especially in hospital ministry—I would attempt to keep at a safe distance. If you don’t, you go cuckoo.
But sometimes you can’t hide. And these there were the deaths of people close to me: my parents and family members, my friends and people in my parish. These were different to me. These were stark in their immediacy and impossible to hold at a clinical distance. This was when I could not hold my breath because there was no breath to hold.
We will all face death—and not just our own. We are told death is part and parcel of living.
That is why we are here tonight. Jesus died.
It is important for me to say those two words in all their stark brevity. The bumper sticker tells us that Jesus died for our sins. We say that in our collects, prayers, scripture and story; and that is true. That is why he died. That is the meaning of his death. But at the moment, when it happened there were no slogans, no anthems or hymns, no bumper stickers. In that moment it was just this simple fact: Jesus died.
We are tempted to jump past this moment and go straight to Easter. We are tempted to hold our breath and drive around this truth. It is like whistling in the dark—that nervous act of apparent confidence in the middle of the unknown. We do that when we are faced with a hard fact of life that we do not want to deal with. We hold our breath. We whistle in the dark. We cover our ears and hum. But no amount of avoidance can dodge this fact: Jesus died.
Jesus did not pretend. He did not hold his breath and wait till it went away. He died. If we forget that he died, or if we hold or breath or whistle past it, then we forget that Jesus lived, breathed, ate, loved, worked, grew as much as he taught, healed, preached and touched. Jesus had family and he had friends. He had enemies as well as people indifferent to his existence. He lived. Just like us.
And he died.
A few years back, Canon Bill Lewellis preached in the Cathedral on Good Friday and he said:
“I have always believed in … and I set my heart today on God in Jesus.
“For most of my adult life, however, it has been crucial to my relationship with Jesus to think that Jesus lived his life without knowing how things were going to turn out … that he was not an actor who knew the ending of the script. I believe in the true man in Jesus. I set my heart on Jesus as true man.
“Because Jesus was truly human, he had no more (and no less) reason to trust God than you and I do. He had the tradition. He had the scriptures. It seems he knew them well. He had friends. He had prayer.
“Those who wrote the gospels (after the resurrection) knew more than Jesus (when he walked his way of the cross) about how things would turn out. That is crucial for me. Otherwise, I would have to believe Jesus, when he suffered and died, was simply a good actor. And if I believed Jesus were an actor, I could not believe that he understands how I think, how I feel, how I can live through hills and valley of prayer and despair … how I struggle to understand myself."
As we face the reality of Jesus’ death we discover the truth that God is with us—not just in the things we like, or in the times we choose, but all of life. Our victories and our set backs; our joys and our despairs; in our choices and in the things we don’t choose; in what we are aware of and in what happens deep inside us. He is with us in the things we face, and he is with us in the things we don't know, and he is with us in the things we avoid. God is with us in living and in our dying. In Jesus, God and humanity join, and everything which keeps us apart dies on the cross.
Tonight, we know, Jesus died.
We can’t hold our breath. Whistling the dark won’t make it go away.
And so we live.