The following piece was included a script I prepared for a television broadcast service last year. The producer cut it out, thinking it too gloomy. It’s from Testament of Friendship by Vera Brittain,
“On one of the coldest mornings of that spring, after she had learnt from a London specialist that she might not have more than two years to live, she went for a walk past Clare Leighton’s cottage to a farm further up the hill. She felt tired and dejected; her mind, still vigorously alive in her slow, impaired body, rebelled bitterly against her fate. Why, she wondered, should she, at thirty-three, not yet in the fullness of her developing powers, be singled out for this cruel unforeseen blow? She knew, for the constant demands of her friends had made it clear to her, that her life was infinitely valuable to others. She thought of all the half-dead people who ‘put in time’, as though time were not the greatest gift in the universe, while she, who could use it so superbly, was soon to be deprived of it for ever; and she felt that her mind could hardly contain the rising anguish of that realization.
Just then she found herself standing by a trough outside the farmyard; the water in it was frozen and a number of young lambs were struggling beside it vainly trying to drink. She broke the ice for them with her stick, and as she did so she heard voice within her saying: “Having nothing, yet possessing all, things”. It was so distinct that she looked round, startled, but she was alone with the lambs on the top of the hill. Suddenly in a flash, the grief, the bitterness, the sense of frustration disappeared; all desire to possess power and glory for herself vanished away, and never came back.
What’s is it all about? A woman faced with a terminal illness who goes for a walk and hears a voice which says to her “having nothing, yet possessing all things”, what does it mean?
Could we try to imagine ourselves in the place of that woman? A young woman who has her whole life ahead of her, but is told by the doctor that she has only two years to live; all sorts of thought would have gone through her mind, shock, disbelief, pain anger. She felt she had everything to live for. She felt resentful to those who had years and years of life left to them and did nothing with their lives.
With all these things going through her head, the woman goes for a walk on a fresh spring morning. Although her mind is very clear and active, her body is already beginning to weaken with her illness, and she carries a stick. She walks up a hill past a farm and at the top she discovers a group of lambs trying to drink from a frozen trough. She breaks the ice and as she does so she hears a voice saying, “having nothing, yet possessing all things”, and at that moment all her hurt and pain go away. What does it mean?
‘Having nothing’, the voice need not remind her. She knows that she has nothing. Her friends, her achievements, her possessions, all of them will be lost when she dies. She knows that she will have nothing.
‘Yet possessing all things’, that is what she has forgotten. In death, she will have nothing, but through Christ, she has all things, because beyond death she has life itself, and, as she knows, life is everything.
The story of that young woman’s spring morning walk and the voice she hears is what today is about. Suddenly she realizes that she needn’t be afraid of death; suddenly she realizes that all the things of this world become as nothing, but she has all things, because she realizes at that moment that she has everlasting life.
In a moment, on a hillside, the woman’s life was changed.
Twenty centuries ago, early on the first day of the week, in a garden in Jerusalem, everything was changed in a moment. Suddenly, Jesus Christ broke the power of death and opened the way to life.
Whatever our own situation, in the end we face the fact faced by the young woman. She had all she wanted. She was successful. She was admired. She had a big circle of friends. She was talented. She was ambitious. The single most overwhelming fact faced by the young woman is that every one of these things is to be taken from her.
Until struck by illness, the young woman had given little thought to life’s end; she had lived for each day, making the most of her time. When told she has only a short time left, she does not know how to cope; her mind can hardly contain the anger.
Every person faces that situation, we realize that whatever we may have in this world, whatever we have achieved, whatever is credited to us, hast to be left behind. At the end we have nothing; at the end we are all equal; yet, like the young woman, we can possess all things.
“Having nothing, yet possessing all things,” Saint Paul’s words celebrate the truth of this Easter morning. Death has become as nothing and eternal life is everything. Is that gloomy?
Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on Sunday, 12th April at 9 am