Kings, Queens and Princes, the great and the small, the young and old, will all meet death and face the judge of the earth. As the writer to the Hebrews explains, “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).
The grave is a great divider for it tears people apart and it separates the living from the dead, and the soul from the body.
Shakespeare’s Calpurnia was wrong when she assumed before Caesar, “When beggars die, there are no comets seen; The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.”
It is Ecclesiastes which faithfully records our own foreordained end, “For the wise, like the fool, will not be long remembered; the days have already come when both have been forgotten. Like the fool, the wise too must die! (2:16)
Susan and I stayed up to watch the funeral service for His Royal Highness, Prince Philip. It was midnight here in Melbourne but one should not overlook momentous occasions such as this. The funeral was orchestrated with solemnity, with military procession and precision, marching in step to Beethoven’s funeral march. It was also obviously deeply personal, to reflect Prince Philip’s life and the devotion of a grieving wife.
The constraints of a global pandemic were evident, with only 30 guests permitted to attend the service inside St George’s Chapel, compulsory mask wearing for Princes and Princesses. Much of the Chapel was deserted as a choir of 4 sang in an empty space. The simplicity and scarcity did not however detract from the dignity and import of the event. If anything, the sight of Her Majesty sitting alone during the service brought to bear the awful reality of grief.
The television presenters spoke of Prince Philip’s ‘faith’. For a moment, one commemorator referred to Duke of Edinburgh’s ‘Christian faith’, but quickly corrected his social faux pas by returning to the vague universal category of ‘faith’.
As we viewed the royal funeral from our sofa, absorbing the sight of the ceremonial and the personal, the figure of a Queen in mourning and the sound of stunningly beautiful music, the common face death struck a note.
Yes, the world lost a remarkable man, but a woman lost her husband and children their father.
We are divided by death and united in death: Duke, accountant, teacher and boilermaker alike. Behind the awe inspiring grandeur of this yet simple royal funeral, probably overlooked by many and yet very present, a word of hope was offered. It is a wonderful hope and it is offered to those mourning in St George’s Chapel and to the 100s millions like Susan and I who were watching from our homes.
The word spoken promises a breakthrough from the grave and the undoing of death. I have no idea whether Prince Philip personally believed this good news and entrusted his life to the Sovereign care of his Redeemer, but the message resounded throughout the service for all to hear: for royals and commoners alike, from the cook to the chorister, the private soldier to the Field Marshall: One who is greater than all Queens and Princes has conquered death and he gives certain hope of resurrection to all who receive him.
This is the portion of Scripture that was read,
“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” (John 11:21-27)
The leveller of life is not only death, it is our critical need for a God who forgives sinners and who can gift eternal life. No matter our status or reputation, even Princes need a saviour.
Christians don’t believe in an afterlife, Jesus holds that there will be an event of far greater consequence and reality: resurrection. Our physical remains share the maggots and soil for a time, only to be resurrected on the last day and to participate in a new creation where there will be no disruption or ending of joy and happiness and life. Jesus identifies the one through whom this gift is made possible: He is the resurrection and the life.
As Jesus asked Martha we may ask ourselves, ‘Do we believe this?’
We will all walk through the shadow of death. Our bodies grow weak and sick and tired. They will all exhaust, beaten down by transgressions and life in a corrupted world. Death will result for those we love and those we despise, and it will also swallow us. This great defeater has itself been defeated. The Messiah came and announced the very news that last night rang true, as it is true for every funeral I have conducted over the years, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.”
Jesus’ words are no hollow gesture. Following his conversation with Martha Jesus approached the tomb where his friend Lazarus lay. In what is the shortest verse in all the Bible we read, “Jesus wept”. This God is not unmoved by the awfulness of death. Even more, to prove the worth of his word this same Jesus who was crucified, rose from the dead on the third day. He was physically and really alive, and never to die again. It is this resurrection that is the guarantee of our resurrection. As the Apostle Paul explains,
“And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:17-20)
Whether it is a royal funeral or the deaths of 3 million people to COVID-19 or our own eventual dying, we need hope that holds fast beyond grief and surpasses our own strength. Thank God for his Son and for the hope of resurrection that is ours in Him.