There is no doubt that the death of Queen Elizabeth II, following the longest reign in British history and the second longest anywhere in the world, ever, will be a milestone in the life of the nation. I found myself unexpectedly tearful as I heard the news.
I cannot offer any lyrical eulogy as others might; I have no anecdotes of my own. But I can offer three things.
First, I was moved and inspired by the way that the Queen seemed to become more confident and explicit in articulating her faith in her annual Christmas broadcasts. I am not alone in noticing this; Catholic commentator Catherine Pepinster noted a few years ago:
A survey of the broadcasts made during her 65-year reign reveals that for most of the time the Queen has spoken only in passing of the religious significance of Christmas. There have been references to presents linking contemporary Christmas to the three wise men, for instance, alongside trips to Commonwealth countries, family events such as weddings and funerals, and there were observations about contemporary society. In 1966, for example, she spoke of the progress of women, and in 1972, she commented on Britain joining the European Community in language that would make any Remainer proud.
But for the past 17 years, her messages have taken on a different tone, with the Queen explaining her own personal faith – “the anchor in my life”, as she described it in 2014.
Here some highlights from recent years.
2000: To many of us our beliefs are of fundamental importance. For me the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life. I, like so many of you, have drawn great comfort in difficult times from Christ’s words and example.
2002: I know just how much I rely on my faith to guide me through the good times and the bad. Each day is a new beginning. I know that the only way to live my life is to try to do what is right, to take the long view, to give of my best in all that the day brings, and to put my trust in God… I draw strength from the message of hope in the Christian gospel.
2008: I hope that, like me, you will be comforted by the example of Jesus of Nazareth who, often in circumstances of great adversity, managed to live an outgoing, unselfish and sacrificial life … He makes it clear that genuine human happiness and satisfaction lie more in giving than receiving; more in serving than in being served.
2011: Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God’s love. God sent into the world a unique person – neither a philosopher nor a general…but a Saviour, with the power to forgive.
2012: This is the time of year when we remember that God sent his only son “to serve, not to be served”. He restored love and service to the centre of our lives in the person of Jesus Christ. It is my prayer this Christmas Day that his example and teaching will continue to bring people together to give the best of themselves in the service of others. The carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter” ends by asking a question of all of us who know the Christmas story, of how God gave himself to us in humble service:
What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if I were a wise man, I would do my part…
The carol gives the answer, ‘Yet what I can I give him – give my heart’.
2013: For Christians, as for all people of faith, reflection, meditation and prayer help us to renew ourselves in God’s love, as we strive daily to become better people. The Christmas message shows us that this love is for everyone. There is no one beyond its reach.
2014: For me, the life of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, whose birth we celebrate today, is an inspiration and an anchor in my life. A role model of reconciliation and forgiveness, he stretched out his hands in love, acceptance and healing. Christ’s example has taught me to seek to respect and value all people, of whatever faith or none.
2016: Billions of people now follow Christ’s teaching and find in him the guiding light for their lives. I am one of them because Christ’s example helps me see the value of doing small things with great love, whoever does them and whatever they themselves believe.
2017: Jesus Christ lived obscurely most of his life and never travelled far. He was maligned and rejected by many, though he had done no wrong. And yet, billions of people now follow his teaching and find in him the guiding light for their lives. I am one of them because Christ’s example helps me see the value of doing small things with great love.
2020 (Easter message): This year, Easter will be different for many of us, but by keeping apart we keep others safe. But Easter isn’t cancelled; indeed, we need Easter as much as ever. As darkness falls on the Saturday before Easter Day, many Christians would normally light candles together. It’s a way of showing how the good news of Christ’s resurrection has been passed on from the first Easter by every generation until now. The discovery of the risen Christ on the first Easter Day gave his followers new hope and fresh purpose, and we can all take heart from this.
2021: It is this simplicity of the Christmas story that makes it so universally appealing: simple happenings that formed the starting point of the life of Jesus, a man whose teachings have been handed down from generation to generation, and have been the bedrock of my faith. His birth marked a new beginning. As the carol says: ‘The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight’.
Secondly, this is a time to reflect on key Scripture passages which express hope in the face of death, passages which the Queen will have known well. The first passage which came to mind for me, in the moment that I heard the news, was from the Book of Revelation:
Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.” Rev 14.13.
But other key passages come to mind:
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thess 4.13–18)
As we grieve the loss of our Queen, we do not grieve as those who have no hope, and it was this hope that the Queen spoke of time and again.
On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. “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. Anyone 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 told him, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” (John 11.17–27)
This faith, this belief, is one that the Queen herself shared and encouraged in others.
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. (Rev 21.1–7)
At the funeral of Prince Philip, at the end of the service, the guardsmen first played the Last Post, signalling the end of his earthly life. But they then played the Reveille, the signal of a new day, reflecting his confidence that there is a new day coming when Jesus returns and the creation is renewed. Many think that it was in fact Prince Philip’s faith that encouraged the Queen to be more open about her own faith in recent years.
Lastly, there are three passages from Christian writers that I have always found to be deeply moving when thinking about death, our mortality, and the hope of resurrection life that Jesus holds out to us.
The first is from the description of the Christian and his companion Hopeful crossing the river of death as they head towards the Celestial City from Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan.
Now I further saw that betwixt them and the gate was a river; but there was no bridge to go over: the river was very deep. At the sight, therefore, of this river, the pilgrims were much astounded; but the men that went with them said, “You must go through, or you cannot come at the gate.”
The pilgrims then – especially Christian – began to despond in their minds; and looked this way and that, but no way could be found by them by which they might escape the river. Then they asked the men if the waters were all of a depth? They said, “No”; yet they could not help them in that case, for said they, “you shall find it deeper or shallower as you believe in the King of the place.”
They then addressed themselves to the water; and entering, Christian began to sink. And crying out to his good friend, Hopeful, he said, “I sink in deep waters, the billows go over my head; all his waves go over me.”…
Hopeful, therefore, here had much ado to keep his brother’s head above water; yea, sometimes he would be quite gone down, and then ere awhile he would rise up again half dead. Hopeful also would endeavour to comfort him, saying, “Brother, I see the gate, and men standing by it to receive us.” …
Then they both took courage, and the enemy was after that as still as a stone, until they were gone over. Christian therefore presently found ground to stand upon; and so it followed that the rest of the river was but shallow. Thus they got over.
Now upon the bank of the river, on the other side, they saw the two shining men again who there waited for them; wherefore, being come up out of the river, they saluted them, saying, “We are ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for those that shall be heirs of salvation.” Thus they went along towards the gate. Now you must note that the City stood upon a mighty hill; but the pilgrims went up that hill with ease, because they had these two men to lead them up by the arms; also they had left their mortal garments behind them in the river; for though they went in with them, they came out without them. They therefore went up here with much agility and speed; though the foundation upon which the City was framed was higher than the clouds. They therefore went up through the regions of the air, sweetly talking as they went; being comforted, because they safely got over the river, and had such glorious companions to attend them.
The second is from the end of The Last Battle by C S Lewis.
Aslan turned to them and said: “You do not yet look so happy as I mean you to be.” Lucy said, “We’re so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back into our own world so often.” “No fear of that,” said Aslan. “Have you not guessed?” Their hearts leaped and a wild hope rose within them. “There was a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother and all of you are – as you used to call it in the Shadowlands – dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.
And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
And the third is from Lewis’ friend J R R Tolkien, and the final scene in Lord of the Rings.
Then Frodo kissed Merry and Pippin, and last of all Sam, and went aboard; and the sails were drawn up, and the wind blew, and slowly the ship slipped away down the long grey firth; and the light of the glass of Galadriel that Frodo bore glimmered and was lost. And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.
In the films by Peter Jackson, this vision is brought forward and spoken of by Gandalf to Pippin during the siege of Minas Tirith.
This was the hope in which the Queen lived and died; this is the hope offered to all who trust in Jesus.
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let those who hear say, “Come!” Let those who are thirsty come; and let all who wish take the free gift of the water of life. (Rev 22.17)