john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Romans 6 / John 6:
    And death shall have no dominion

    Good Shepherd Service of Commemoration of the Faithful Departed 6/1/2008

    Romans 6.3-9, John 6.37-40

    And death shall have no dominion. Or in other words the power of death is too weak to overcome us; the effect of death is not enough to defeat us; there are greater and brighter powers at work in the world and in the heavens than death. Death shall not dominate us. Death shall have no dominion.

    We know this because nature tells us. At this time of year looking at the bare leafless trees, the empty flowerbeds, the frostbitten grass: all looks deathly. The earth itself seems to have been overcome by death; the birds struggle to find food, and many creatures just disappear to hibernate, which is like a sort of death in the middle of life, a switching-off, allowing themselves to be overcome by darkness.

    But death has no dominion in nature. And in the deepest depths of winter we know this and it warms our hearts. We know that before long the spring will come, that those hibernating creatures will crawl out of their little tombs and begin to move and mix and mate again; that the trees will blossom and the birds will sing because the earth is budding with food for them and all around - life has overcome death. And we too, being nature's creatures, find our winter blues fall away when the sun comes and the dark nights fade. We know that death has no dominion because nature tells us.

    And we know that death has no dominion because scripture tells us. The two readings we heard tonight remind us that God himself has been through death - in Jesus. And that means that God can make a true promise that everyone else who goes through death with him also experiences what he did: a rebirth, a resurrection.
    We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
    - wrote St Paul. And so we are reassured that all who have had a Christian funeral will now be sharing in a new life - how, exactly, where exactly - that is a mystery to us. But God asks us to have faith, and believe that those who have gone before us walk again, in him. We know that death has no dominion because scripture tells us.

    And we know that death has no dominion because we see it in each other. Now it is undeniably hard to go through a bereavement. It is a terrible thing to endure, the loss of a loved one, a companion in life perhaps for many many years. When they go the gap they leave behind is enormous, it seems like it could never be filled. It seems like their death puts an end to the life of the loved ones left behind too... 'how can I live without you?'

    The bereaved seem to be in a sort of permanent winter: when they look out on the world all they see is an empty landscape without joy or possibility; where once they had the friendship of their loved one to enrich them, once bereaved they are like winter birds searching for scraps to keep them going; some will almost literally go into hibernation, escaping from a cruel world which has shrunk to almost nothing for them.

    And yet time and again we see people who've lost loved ones gradually finding their way out of these dark days. Perhaps a new friendship will come along and surprise them, perhaps the dedication and love of family members will give them new hope and direction, maybe they will find faith in those promises that all who have been through death in Christ will have a resurrection. Resurrection, you see, is not just for the deceased in heaven: it's for us here on earth: God is always looking to bring new life to us. Every day. God will always answer our prayers. Jesus said, "anyone who comes to me I will never drive away."

    And while it may take years and be a slow painful experience we know - because we've seen it over and over again - that, in Christ, death will have no dominion over the bereaved.

    It was the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas who coined the phrase, 'And death shall have no dominion'. Thomas felt the death of his father very keenly. As he saw that once-strong man seeming to give up the ghost on his deathbed Dylan wrote the angry, passionate poem 'Do not go gentle into that good night - rage, rage, against the dying of the light.' The emotion Thomas most felt at that time was anger, an emotion felt by many newly-bereaved people. I remember angrily shaking my fists at God when my beloved Nan was dying in pain and distress... Remember the anger of Jesus on the cross: "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" I think that God responds to angry people with grace, and invites them to walk, in hope, with him.

    So after his father's death Thomas's anger turned to a strongly-expressed faith that the death his father had been through, the bereavement that he himself was going through, would not defeat them. The poem he wrote to express this was astonishing in its imagery and its strength of feeling:
    And death shall have no dominion.
    Dead men naked they shall be one
    With the man in the wind and the west moon;
    When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
    They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
    Though they go mad they shall be sane,
    Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
    Though lovers be lost love shall not;
    And death shall have no dominion. [1]
    The words you find to describe your bereavement will be different to mine and different to Dylan's. But I hope we all come to share together this strong faith: that death has not defeated those we have lost, and death will not defeat us.


    [1] Dylan Thomas, And death shall have no dominion