The news this morning of the death of Debbie Reynolds barely 48 hours after that of her daughter Carrie Fisher, most famous for playing Princess (General) Leia in the Star Wars franchise, is one more piece of sadness at what is meant to be a festive time of year. Reynolds was apparently planning her daughter's funeral when she suffered a stroke which took her life. Before this, on Christmas Day we learnt that the singer George Michael had been found dead at his Oxfordshire home by his partner. Since then the media has been full of tributes to these stars.
As a priest in the Church of England, I have been helped at times of sorrow by our prayer books which shapes our funeral service around three key points - thanksgiving, remembrance and letting go. The first of those two things appear to the be the same, but on reflection they are profoundly different. When we give thanks we are celebrating what was good about the person we are grieving, but in remembrance we bring the whole of the person's life to mind and that includes their faults and the wounds that they leave behind. Every funeral should have a time of confession and absolution - a moment to recognise that things are not perfect, that we hurt people (and are hurt by them) as much as we love them, that behind every picture of a saint is often a hidden sinner.
The same man who one evening could seek out anonymous promiscuous sex was the secret philanthropist of the following morning.
George Michael it seems to me was a case in point. The same man who one evening could seek out anonymous promiscuous sex was the secret philanthropist of the following morning. The truth is that we are all somehow similar - we have layers of good and evil, love of God and then sinful rebellion. Too often we wish to ignore that which is uncomfortable in others because it reminds us of what is uncomfortable in ourselves. At the heart of Christian theology is the notion that when it comes to matters of eternity, the good cannot outweigh the evil, that the sin is the thing that time and time again locates our basest instincts. We want to be remembered for our good aspects, but God sees the deep truth of our wretchedness.
Hope in liturgy
I presided at a Book of Common Prayer Communion on Christmas Day and I love these words from the prayer of oblation after communion:
"O LORD and heavenly Father, we thy humble servants entirely desire thy fatherly goodness mercifully to accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; most humbly beseeching thee to grant, that by the merits and death of thy Son Jesus Christ, and through faith in his blood, we and all thy whole Church may obtain remission of our sins, and all other benefits of his passion. And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee, that all we, who are partakers of this holy Communion, may be fulfilled with thy grace and heavenly benediction. And although we be unworthy, through our manifold sins, to offer unto thee any sacrifice, yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service; not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offences, through Jesus Christ our Lord; by whom, and with whom, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, all honour and glory be unto thee, O Father Almighty, world without end. Amen."
The prayer is simple - because our sin vastly outweighs our acts of goodness we have nothing in us of any merit, but we look to God to pardon our offences through the death of Jesus and to only then help us offer ourselves and our actions to him. Of course, that requires us to recognise our wretchedness, our depravity, our sinfulness despite all our efforts at good works. Without that recognition we will continue to think we are good people, deserving of a reward. The reality is entirely the exact opposite. And of course this brings us to the letting go part of a funeral, because ultimately whether we are rich or poor, famous or unknown, apparent saints or apparent sinners, we need God's mercy to be in his presence. The final prayer of commendation at a funeral doesn't laud the dead person but rather pleads the death of Jesus on their behalf. The congregation of mourners are asked to let go of the deceased and place him or her in God's hands and that will be the same for Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher, George Michael and all others who have died over the past few days.
He might be an icon of the 80s pop scene, but he is also an icon of humanity
Over the next few days some people will continue to praise George Michael for his good works and some will demonise him for his (at times) sexual depravity. He might be an icon of the 80s pop scene, but he is also an icon of humanity - struggling to find meaning, purpose and value in one's actions and identity. The true source of all those things of course is Jesus Christ, not ourselves, our good or our ill. As Christians let's try and be honest about the mix of morality that was George Michael, the mix that was Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, the mix of morality that is each and every one of us. At the same time let us never forget the clear source of imputed righteousness that we find only in Jesus. Those who die having trusted him can be confident of his victory and will claim his promises.
The Revd Peter Ould is a Church of England priest based in Canterbury. You can find out more about him at www.peter-ould.net.