In paradisum

This is the homily I preached at the Requiem we celebrated for Her Late Majesty The Queen on Friday. The readings were Lamentations 3.22-26, 31-33; 2 Corinthians 4.16-5.4; John 6.35-40.


When Mrs Alexander wrote her much loved hymn, ‘All things bright and beautiful’ in 1848 it was a very different world. Queen Victoria was 11 years into her long reign, the purple headed mountains and the rivers running by, the tall trees and the greenwoods were as much the same then as they are now, but the way we live has changed beyond all recognition. Mrs Alexander included a verse which is no longer printed in our hymn books, we just couldn’t sing it

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

Perhaps Mrs Alexander had forgotten a story that Jesus told that only St Luke, with all his inclusive passion, records for us, a story of a rich man, who we know as Dives – but to whom the gospel doesn’t give a name – and Lazarus, the poor man, who Luke does name, in that wonderful reversal of fortunes that the gospels recognise and the world doesn’t. We always know the name of the rich man, but the poor man, well, why should we know his name – but not so in God’s kingdom. Perhaps Mrs Alexander had forgotten the story or perhaps she’d been taught to understand it in a particular way that reinforced the standards and the norms of her day.

But in the texts of the Requiem Mass it’s the poor man who in many ways gets the last word. This Eucharist that we celebrate for the repose of the soul of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of such blessed and precious memory, whose death, so long expected yet at the end so sudden that it took our breath away, will conclude, as every Requiem should, with the most beautiful of texts. It’s called ‘In paradisum’ and it speaks of the paradise that we pray the departed soul will attain and at the end it says this

May the chorus of angels receive you and with Lazarus who once was poor may you have eternal rest.

At the conclusion of his address to the nation just a week ago, King Charles paid tribute to his mother, the Queen, saying: “May ‘flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.’” He was quoting words from ‘Hamlet’ but the words also remind us of these words from the ‘In paradisum’, ‘May the chorus of angels receive you.’ But it’s Lazarus, the poor man, who’s most important.

Job, in his agonies, cries out ‘‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there.’ Despite all he had, in the end he had nothing, he was as he was born. ‘The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate’ share the same fate, we’re born and we die. We may live the life of a queen but death will gather us in just the same way as it will gather each one of us, naked before God, with only our good deeds to clothe us. And that’s what St Paul is speaking of in our Second Reading.

‘We wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed’ he says, clothed not with our poor rags or our royal robes, but with faith and hope and love, with mercy, pity, peace. These are the clothes and the garlands of paradise which we wear as children of God.

One of the phrases at the moment is ‘levelling up’ – but while it has taken on a new meaning in the circles of Government we understand it in quite a different way. The startling thing abut the church, in those early, Pauline days, was that it was the place where both slave and free, rich and poor, met equally. The ‘Bread of Life’ of which Jesus speaks in the gospel, the bread of angels given to mortals is shared equally, the cup is common, we drink alongside our sister, our brother in a way that we’d never do in other circumstances, the portions are the same, the food is the same, we come forward together, in the same way, at the same time.

‘Though we are many we are one body because we all share in one bread’.

It’s such a familiar experience to those of us who go to church and make our communion, who receive the Sacrament, that we can easily forget how powerful and how counter-cultural it all is – and Elizabeth, our sister in faith, shared the bread and the cup with us, for there’s only one Eucharistic sacrifice, only one offering and we share equally in it.

Watching the incredible ritual that’s surrounding Her Late Majesty’s death, witnessing the queue snaking its way past the Cathedral, is a reminder to all of us that death is not ‘Nothing at all’ as Henry Scott Holland’s so much loved and so misunderstood words suggest, but is rather the greatest something and the most unavoidable that there is. For those who’d like to believe in their own immortality, the mortality even of Our Sovereign Lady makes us stop and think about our own fragile hold on life, our own dependence on God whose love brought us naked into the world and who in love will receive us naked from it – but with poor Lazarus showing us the way.

In his powerful poem ‘The Journey of the Magi’ T S Eliot grapples with what the Magi experience, these old wise men who’d seen everything – until they encountered Jesus

Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

There’s little difference between birth and death, for us. St Paul writing to the Corinthians at the end of the Second Reading makes the most amazing statement, that we will be

swallowed up by life.’

Death is our second birth, to life, the eternal life of which Jesus speaks in the gospel, to life to which the dead will be raised, Elizabeth and Lazarus, sister and brother with you and me. The assurance we have is that our Queen knew this, she lived this, this was her faith, so much lived, so much loved, the jewels in her crown, the garments she wore.

Angels will sing her to her rest, the chorus of angels will receive her and at the gate will be Lazarus, named and known, once poor, but now rich, as you will be, as we will be, ready to walk side by side towards the Lamb and that throne of grace to meet the one who, by his death gave us life.

May our Most Gracious Sovereign Lady, Elizabeth, rest in peace, and rise in glory. Amen.

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