Thought for the Day - Rt Rev Graham James

Good morning. Earlier this week the Department of Work and Pensions released figures claiming that a quarter of all British children will live until they are a hundred. Apparently eleven million of us can now anticipate a royal telegram on our hundredth birthday. Future monarchs are likely to be fully employed congratulating us on our longevity.

The increase in life expectancy over the past century has been astonishing. In 1900 Britons could expect to live for fifty years. Now the average is over eighty and rising. But the news this week that we’ll live even longer wasn’t greeted with spontaneous joy and dancing in the streets. Young people interviewed on television were not excited. One report began with the words “Experts warned…” as if this was a threat like climate change or a pending natural disaster. Why do we fight for better health care – after all this is a tribute to the NHS – and then grow uncertain about the prospect of extended life? I think it’s partly fear of incapacity and diminishment. But perhaps we can’t imagine longer life bringing benefits like increased wisdom.

A lot of ancient literature describes distant ancestors living abnormally long lives. Methuseleh is the most famous. It was a sign of God’s blessing, a mark of wisdom. Even God himself, the wisest of all, was called “the Ancient of Days”.

But there’s another biblical slant. Job asks with heavy irony “Is wisdom with the aged, and understanding found in length of days?” In the New Testament scarcely any interest is shown in anyone’s age. We can just about work out Jesus was probably thirty-three when he was crucified, a relatively young man by our standards. His wisdom didn’t come from a long human life. At Good Friday services today there’ll be a lot of silence as people venerate the Cross. Christians can’t easily explain why Christ’s death reveals God’s love and wisdom in the world. But they know the wisest people have often been through the greatest suffering, and those who love the most frequently suffer most. Good Friday sees these truths played out on a cosmic scale.

I once visited a woman, young in spirit, celebrating her hundredth birthday. A war-time refugee she knew about suffering and cherished the gift of a long life. She held a cross in one arthritic hand and a glass of champagne in the other. The secret of a long life, I asked? She winked and pointed at the bubbles in her glass then gave me the Cross. On it was inscribed a saying of Thomas a Kempis –“Carry your cross, and the cross will carry you”. It’s not length of life that matters but the spirit in which you live.

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