Christina Rossetti’s poem, ‘Remember’ has a particular resonance for me. It asks that she be remembered after her death, when ‘you can no more hold me by the hand, nor I half turn to go, yet turning, stay’. These lines came back to me when my husband was dying, because they reminded me of a particular weekend when he had to leave home on Sunday instead of Monday, in order to attend some work training. We had been having such a lovely weekend, and both of us were sad that it needed to end that much sooner. I was trying to put a brave face on it, when he suddenly took off his jacket, chucked his bag back into the wardrobe and decided not to go after all till the following morning.
I remembered this so many times as I sat by his bedside in the hospice. And I remembered Rossetti’s sentiment – that death revokes the option to remain. How I wished he could hug me as he had that Sunday, and tell me he was staying.
It came back powerfully to me again this morning in church.
God restrained his own hand many times against the Israelites, never permitting them quite to suffer the fate they deserved. In the prophecy of Hosea, he asked himself, ‘How can I hand you over, Israel’? Yet, in the preceding verses, we see countless reasons for him to do just that, given the unfaithfulness of those who called him ‘God Most High’. Even though their words were not matched by their deeds, still God resisted giving them over to destruction. Such was his love for his own people that he was not willing that any should perish, and he has repeatedly held us away from death since.
But not his own Son. Jesus was not spared any of our punishment. The guilt was ours, yet the suffering was all on him.
This is love. It is incomprehensible to our small minds but my word, it should leave a colossal mark on our hearts. God couldn’t bear to punish his sinful, disloyal people for their own dark deeds; but he willingly gave up his Son to that death on the cross, to the stark moment when he cried out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’?
We cannot know the mind of God, but it’s incredible to imagine the Father doing to Jesus what he would not do to us. And it is equally astonishing to think of Jesus, walking to Calvary and to death . . . and not turning back from it as any one of us would, given the chance.
Today’s sermon ended with the minister reading some testimony from a Pakistani Christian who – like many of his countrymen – has been disowned by family for converting away from their faith. Yet, he said, the empty home and the silent telephone are not reasons to pity him, because he knows that God has something far better for him, and there is no loneliness in Christ.
I can put my ‘amen’ to that, except in one respect. The awe I feel at this man’s sacrifice, is because it reflects God. Neither God the Father, nor the Son, spared himself in redeeming us. Painful, soul-searing sacrifice was willingly made. Ditto this Christian whose profession made such a moving end to today’s sermon.
Any losses I have sustained were not sacrifices willingly given. I don’t think I would have had the strength, or the faith. But, there again, God’s infinite love didn’t ask me to give what I could not: in the light of Christian understanding, therefore, even his taking away is kindness itself.
That’s the heart of God.