Sermon for Christ the King Sunday, 21 November 2021

A Memorial for the Covid Victims

By Revd George Mwaura

Leviticus 10: 1–7 & John 20: 1–10

Most of you will know that today is Christ the King Sunday, a day we celebrate the kingship of our Lord Jesus Christ. In recognition of his kingship, today we have chosen to have a memorial service for all those who lost their lives during this terrible period of the pandemic. Taking consolation and comfort from the fact that Christ overcame death and reigns supreme with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

The passage from the book of Leviticus, which I suspect most people here this morning have never read, is truly telling. It demonstrates the reality that most people who have lost a loved one during this time of the pandemic have come to know: that the impact of the virus, and the national lockdown that was put in place to support the NHS and other essential services during the emergency made it virtually impossible for relatives and friends to comfort and support their loved ones in their final hours, and the social distancing measures resulted in restrictions for funerals and cremations.

One of the most challenging aspects of this very strange story of Nadab and Abihu in the Leviticus reading is its approach to loss and grief. Faced with these horrific deaths on a day when Israel was supposed to be celebrating the opening of the tabernacle, there is a strange absence of grief.  In response to the death of his sons, their father, Aaron, is silent. I completely failed to comprehend Aaron’s silence, and the only logical conclusion I could arrive at is that he was absolutely paralysed by what he had seen. Who wouldn’t?

Meanwhile, their uncle, Moses, resorts to theology – big mistake! At times of deep loss, please do not try and reason theologically with people! No, no! Just be there with them. Silence sometimes speaks volumes! After removing the bodies, Moses instructs Aaron and his remaining sons that they must not mourn in the normal practice. Why? Because if they do, they would die! We are left baffled again by Moses’ instructions, because to us, the normal practice is to attend and mourn those whom we love. But Moses instructions are familiar, are they not? Most of you will remember the beginning of the pandemic when PPI was in short supply and many health care workers lost their lives when they came in contact with those who had died from the corona virus and so the Department of Health issued this warning: do not touch the bodies of those who have died from Covid-19 … wear PP1 or you’ll die! Remember that?

Those who have lost loved ones and friends in this pandemic, and that is most of us, have come to know how terrible this restriction is and so we can understand Aaron’s grief and lack of words. Our natural instinct is to be with those we love, to gather and to hug. But that natural instinct has had to be suppressed due to the risk of spreading the virus. The pandemic forced us to make very difficult choices when it came to saying goodbye to our loved ones and thereby delayed the process of healing.

But humanity has always been very inventive when it comes to finding solutions and before we knew it, there were Zoom funerals. please raise your hand if the pandemic forced you to attend a Zoom funeral? But even though Zoom did allow some people to pay tribute safely, there was no denying the fact that people could not mourn as they wished to.

Some of you might be wondering why I have sneaked an Easter reading into our lessons this morning. It was deliberate. You see, Easter morning begins in darkness, pain, sorrow and grief. This is a story of bereavement as well, and one in which, to begin with, Mary Magdalene finds herself in a similar situation to Aaron: grief stricken and unable to mourn because there was no closure. Where is the body? She cannot comprehend why or who has taken the body away. And so she poses questions to Simon Peter, to the angel appearing to her in the empty tomb and finally to the Lord, whom she mistakes for the gardener: Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, she asks. No doubt, these were the words of one deeply consumed with grief.

To date, here in the UK, we have lost about 145,000 people to the pandemic and still counting. This is a national tragedy because behind these statistics are real people: mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, friends and families. For every one of these deaths from March last year to date, in some form or the other the number of mourners at funerals was strictly limited. Many people were not been able to sit with their dying relatives in hospitals or care homes and many institutions lacked the capacity to offer bereavement support.

And now psychologists and therapists tell us that restricted grieving is one of the key factors to the increase in mental health illness across the country. As a nation we have not been able to share communally in our grief. Yes, many ways and methods have been tried to offer support to grieving families, but simply put we have a humongous national pent-up grief. Naturally, when folks are grieving, they do not see things straight. Like Mary, they do not recognise familiar things and it is possible to confuse the Lord for the gardener!

As a nation we will need to find ways of helping people express their grief in the times ahead. There is need of support groups and places for conversation and I am happy to note the initiative from Mission Partnership, our church and others in Milton Keynes to provide Gentle Spaces. For some, there will be need for therapy, but that is work we can leave to the specialists. Nevertheless, it is a service that will be needed in all areas of our communities. As a church, we will need to support and work with others in this task, even though we have our own specific responsibilities.

Our role as a church must be to help people find ways of remembering their loved ones. We will need to do so in ways that allow tears to flow freely, anger to be expressed, questions to be asked and grief to be aired in words, songs, prayers and lament.

Going back to Mary Magdalene and the empty tomb, the good news is that we know how the story pans out. Christ reveals himself to Mary Magdalene and her anguish is finished. It is our duty and responsibility as a church to convey the eternal and joyful truth to all those who grieve: that the risen Christ is with us all the time. In grief, we do not need to be alone, as the actual presence of Jesus is with us.

Yes, people need time and space to express grief. We must not be hurried into a false sense of closure. We cannot move on until we have shed our tears and expressed our anguish. And as, we begin to win the war with Covid-19 and slowly see the light at the end of the tunnel, we realise that salvation lies, not with human beings, but with the Christ who conquered death. We must hold on to that hope for he suffered and triumphed so that we might share eternity with him.