THE “four last things” — death, judgement, heaven, and hell — are still mentioned in Common Worship: Times and seasons as traditional themes for Advent meditation. The earlier Promise of His Glory offered A Service of Preparation for the End, based on the four last things, as a penitential rite in Advent; this has been dropped (a loss, perhaps). The introduction included the words: “Let us examine our preparation for death and eternal life, in order that we may be strengthened in hope, moved to thank God for his grace, and inspired to deeper penitence and greater love.”
Preparation and exercises for holy dying have an ancient tradition in prayer and liturgy. A Litany for Holy Dying (reproduced by David Silk in an ASB collection) includes the petitions: “Let us die in your faith and fear, in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life: Good Jesus, hear us. Deliver us Lord, at our last hour; as you delivered Enoch and Elijah from the death which must come to all. . . As you delivered Noah from the flood. . . As you delivered Job from his affliction. . . Save and deliver us.”
The traditional text for the requiem includes the prayer Libera Me: “Deliver me, O Lord, from death eternal on that fearful day, when the heavens and the earth shall be moved, when thou shalt come to judge the world by fire.”
The Dies Irae in the requiem mass ends with a reference to the great parable of judgement in Matthew 25, which a contemporary hymn by Ruth Duck interprets directly:
“Come, now, you blessed, eat at my table,”
said the great judge to the righteous above.
”When I was hungry, thirsty and homeless,
sick and in prison, you showed me your love.”
Although the Orthodox Kontakion is found in a number of Anglican hymn books, John Tavener’s Funeral Ikos come from the lesser-known Orthodox Service for the Burial of Priests. Despite facing the unknown, Alleluia is the response that we must all make: “Whither I go, that understand I not, neither what shall become of me yonder; only God who hath summoned me knoweth. But make commemoration of me with the song: Alleluia.”
By contrast, Michael Forster’s hymn (to the tune of Dvorak’s New World symphony) might seem almost too simplistic:
Going home, moving on,
through God’s open door;
hush, my soul, have no fear,
Christ has gone before.
A number of new hymns have been written for the bereaved, notably for those who have lost a child. John Bell and Graham Maule’s “We cannot care for you the way we wanted”, and Shirley Murray’s “Into the hands that blessed the children” are two good examples.
Among the great array of traditional hymns about eschatological hope, some emphasise continuity between this world and the next. An example is the hymn by Charles Wesley and others, “Let saints on earth in concert sing” (“. . .part of his host have crossed the flood, and part are crossing now”); while others hint at the separation — the great abyss of Luke 16.26, overcome by one who came back from the dead.
Preparation for dying is less frequently articulated in contemporary liturgical forms. Although the Nunc Dimittis is still central to evensong, the idea of commending one’s soul to God is today more familiar in its traditional place in Night Prayer.
A joyful anticipation of what awaits is depicted in Peter Abelard’s “O quanta qualia”:
O what their joy and their glory must be,
Those endless Sabbaths the blessed ones see!
Crown for the valiant; to weary ones rest;
God shall be all, and in all ever blest.
And perhaps the praises we sing are, in themselves, our best preparation for the life of heaven, for “One and unending is that triumph-song, Which to the angels and us shall belong.”
The Revd Dr Jo Spreadbury is the Precentor of Portsmouth Cathedral; she also chairs Praxis.