So our ancestors planted yew trees in holy places, and they brought evergreen boughs into their homes for a midwinter festival, and we still do that at Christmas. As a child I used to collect sticky buds in the middle of winter: put them in a jam jar of water on the kitchen windowsill and they'll sprout new leaves to give a little taste of spring long before we get the real thing. Or you can buy your little pots of hyacinths or mini-daffodils in Charlie's or Tesco to do the same.
One winter we had a week on Madeira, where most of the trees are green all year round; but in a mountain valley we came across a grove of chestnut trees that were leafless and bare. Our guide assured us anxiously that they weren't really dead, and they’d get new leaves in spring. I think he didn’t know that at home most of our trees are deciduous, and look kind of dead all winter.
They only look dead though. Each tiny hard bud on each black winter twig re-tells the story of Easter. Each one contains new life - all the loveliness of spring hidden away but waiting to emerge. As the nights drawn in, autumn may feel like the end of things, but really the year’s circling round to a new bright beginning that will come, however dark it is just now.
Our lives too have their circles and cycles, as we move round the year, marking seasons, celebrating birthdays and anniversaries. Every year’s a circle, from Christmas and New Year to Easter, to another birthday, to the summer hols, to harvest and Bonfire Night, and round to Easter and New Year again.
Except that it isn’t, not really. In this service we admit to the truth, that as the years turn there are endings as well as beginnings, and there are partings of the way. One of our prayers includes the phrase "those whom we love but see no longer". For some of us that parting of the way may be very recent, for others perhaps many years have gone by; but we’re united here by that phrase. We still love, even though we see no longer.
As physical beings, we’re made literally out of stardust. Trust me on this, I’m a scientist, that’s where the stuff that makes us comes from. And one day our physical selves will be recycled. Fact. When I'm done with it, the atoms and molecules that make up me will go on to make up something else.
That’s part of the story of you and me, and what it means to be human. But it’s not the whole story; I don’t think so, anyway. I don't think that you can put all there is to say about human life into atoms and molecules. We're more than the sum of our parts: there’s things about us, like humour, personality, skill, emotion, character and most of all love, that I want to talk about in terms not of atoms and molecules but of spirit. Ask me if my physical death will switch that off, the spiritual me, and I have to say no, I don't believe it will.
Here’s what I think. Like those bare winter twigs that contain the promise of spring, I believe that every human self contains the possibility of forever. And here’s why I think it: because I read in the Bible that folk like me and you are made in the image of God. And also because the very fact that we do go on loving those whom we see no longer helps me believe that love is stronger than death. Now even at its very best our human love is only a faint reflection of the love divine we sing about: and that’s the love I trust in: love that created us, love that came to meet us and claim us and redeem us in the man Jesus, the man we call Christ, the Son of God. That’s what I believe, and that’s why I’m here.
Tonight you and I have an opportunity to remember, and as we remember, also to celebrate and affirm the love we go on feeling, for some of us maybe as still quite painful. And we’re not doing this in an attempt to hang on to something that’s slipping away from us. We’re doling it because the memories we have and the love we feel, these are important, and they remain part of us, and it’s right that they should. And the candles we light tonight we light both as a way of remembering and also as a sign of hope.
Hope in what? Hope, I say, in the flow of life that’s without limit, hope in the eternally creative love of God. Hope also in the cross, our sign of a love that’s stronger than any enemy, that has defeated that last and greatest enemy that we call death. Jesus tells us that we, you and me, have a place in that love.
Elsewhere in scripture we read that perfect love casts out fear. If I look at the black skeletons of trees on the windy hillsides, if I’m honest I still feel a bit of that fear our primitive forbears felt at this time of year. They built bonfires and festooned their homes with evergreen branches to bring back the spring. But I don’t need to, because I believe and trust in the love of God.
So tonight we remember some special people, we acknowledge the spaces they've left in our lives, and we also commend them to God’s love, the love that surrounds and sustains us in this life and welcomes us home when this life is over. I believe that each human life is a unique and special spark of the love of God. I believe that those who are special to us are also special to him. We go on loving, and so does he, and his is the perfect love that casts out fear, love stronger than death, love which says: 'I am come that they may have life, and may have it in all abundance.'
November is a dark time, but we already have the promise of spring. Our God is God not of the dead but of the living; and his love has already ended the power of death to hold us.