It has been an unusual Holy Week. The option for 4th year medical students on ‘Death, Autopsy and Law’ has given me two great days of reflection during the week Christians remember the last week of Jesus’ life.
On Monday I acted as an extra small group facilitator for a session on ‘Personhood and Suffering’ led by Prof Tom Sensky. The session invited reflection on the overlooked question of ‘what or rather who is a person?’ There were various exercises in which students considered the important people and aspects of their own lives and identity. They were then asked to choose the two most important ones. It was an experience of imagining ‘loss’. Obviously, it was hard to choose – ‘boyfriend or parents? Which parent? Which sibling? What about my love of doing…?’ This was preparation for considering the aspects of the self that are ‘lost’ during illness.
As a Christian priest it seemed a good thing that would be doctors had to imagine themselves loosing key elements of thier own identity or personhood. They were putting themselves in the picture of loss and suffering.They did this before looking at the case studies of patients and thier responses to serious illness.
It was also interesting to think in this way during a week when as a Christian I am remember ing Jesus consciously choosing to go up to Jerusalem to offer himself into the violent social mix of religion, Empire, military occupation and oppressive taxation. Jesus gives away his life (personhood) and suffers. He does this to show us the ways we human beings use violence and conflict to avoid facing our own wounds and limitations.
The next day I had arranged for the same group to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum. Our guide took us on a tour of funeral and burial objects from different times, cultures and religions. This led to more discussion in which we considered our own approach to death and funerals.
So I spent two days with people who are looking at all aspects of death, end of life care and autopsy. It vividly reminded me that in the Christian story there is new life after Jesus’ suffering and death. And yet it also made me very aware that the risen Christ still has carries the wounds of his own death. This can not be explored through thinking – it needs a physical, bodily meditation practice.
‘Death’ was the last word of the reading. The sound of the word hung in the air of the Church as the reverberation slowly faded. It was not the most festive of moments in the School of Medicine Carol Service.
The reading was ‘The Journey of the Magi’ by TS Eliot and was followed quite merrily and naturally by the choir singing ‘We three kings’. A month before it had been an easy decision to put the Eliot poem into the service. It came after the reading from Matthew’s gospel telling of the wise men who follow a star looking for a newly born child destined to become and king. They bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. But as the sound of the word slowly dissolved into the space of the building I really though that this was just too serious and heavy for an end of term Carol Service.
Most of the poem deals with the troubles of the journey, ill camels, expensive food, hostility towards the travellers and the bad winter weather. The last lines ask what exactly they were seeing when they found the new born child in a stable ‘Was it a birth or a death?’
It is a poem that acts out the Christian idea of the deep truth of God being revealed or becoming visible. The gifts include myrrh, the substance used for anointing and embalming a body after death. There is a heavy symbolism in the birthday gifts that really point towards the end of Jesus’ life.
Of course a congregation comprised of medical students and teachers is going to be more familiar than most with moving frequently from moments of birth to moments of death. It is an unsual sample of the 18-25 population where most of the 300 people attending have been present at a number of births and deaths. And afterwards in the catching up over mince pies and mulled wine I heard two stories from students sharing very recent hospital experiences of patients dying. In Holy Trinity Church where we held the service there is a carved screen above the altar. In the lower part is a small nativity scene. Standing high above it is the main piece – a crucifixion. A 3 D version of Eliot’s poem and a faint reference to the experiences of medical students?
The full text of the Eliot poem and a recording can be found at http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoem.do?poemId=7070
Three Carol Services marked the end of term. Students from the Christian Union held a service in the Great Hall, with music from the Gospel Choir and plenty of mince pies before and after. The Medics came to Holy Trinity Prince Consort Road for their service bringing with them their own choir, chamber choir and orchestra. Well over 300 staff and students attended the traditional 6 lessons and carols (yes, I know that it is supposed to be nine lessons but that really can drag). There is a real community feel to the School of Medicine Carol Service with students, academics and administrative staff sharing the readings and members of the Rowing Club standing at the back singing with male gusto at the end of an afternoon of other celebrations.
A few days later we held the College Carol Service with another 300 people gathering in Holy Trinity. In both services we start at the back of Church in darkness with the choir singing an Advent chant. Advent is the time of preparation in the four weeks before Christmas and it has a kind of feel to like keeping watch in darkness beside someone very ill or at a night vigil for justice. We then take a light from the great Easter candle the symbol of hope and resurrection. This is passed to the people on the back rows who light their own candles and then in turn pass it forward. Gradually the light is given and received throughout the congregation. It is an action that I remembered seeing as a student at the Taize Community in France. There it is part of the Saturday night service (and they borrowed it from the Russian Orthodox practice of marking Good Friday and Easter Day each weekend of the year). I love the action of sharing lights – it requires both receiving and giving. It is all very obvious in one sense but it is worth being reminded that we are all sharing in a life much greater than our own – whether we see this in either a religious or humanist sense. And of course the lights have to be held with care, nurtured almost, if they are to stay alight through the service.