When I heard that Agnes had passed away and I began to reflect on her life, I turned to Seneca, the early church’s favourite Roman philosopher, whose little treatise called “On the Shortness of Life” had as deep an impact on me as it did on the first Christians in Rome.
You might think that reaching for a book called “On the Shortness of Life” may seem a little strange when considering Agnes’ longevity. After all, 96 is a long time in human years. Few people make it that far.
But as we now know, even 96 years is too short when you love someone as much as Agnes was loved. Any span of time would seem too limited for someone as dear to us Agnes.
But Seneca’s main idea wasn’t that mere fact life is short, but what do we do with the time we’ve been given? How do we use the moments that add up to a life? Is time our friend or our enemy?
The preacher of Ecclesiastes as we heard this afternoon, also spoke of the flowing seasons of time where everything has a place. He asks us to remember that one season begins just as another ends. He asks us to remember that any span of time is limited.
But unlike Seneca, the preacher in Ecclesiastes sees the limitations of time as reason to weep and wail over our mortality, and what he sees as the meaningless of life. He begins his sermon with these words:
Vanity of vanities, cries the preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. 3What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?
4A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. 5The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises. 6The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. 7All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow. 8All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing.
It’s easy to be dragged down with the preacher of Ecclesiastes into the despairing notion that life is meaningless; that all that we have and all that we do will end up disappearing, swept into the sandstorm of eternity, vanished in the unending ocean. That the meager time we’ve been given will be forgotten. Lost. That our brief appearance on this planet will have no more significance than the ant under our shoe.
For everything, yes, there is a season. A time to be born and a time to die. This is true.
Then again, Seneca didn’t see time the same way that the preacher of Ecclesiastes did. Yes there are seasons that come and go. There is a beginning. And there is an end. For everyone and everything.
But where the preacher saw meaninglessness in the limitations of those seasons, Seneca saw opportunity. And so he would probably ask the preacher: simply because there is a definite beginning and end to our earthly lives, does that necessarily mean that “all is vanity”?
And again Seneca would remind the preacher that it’s not the length of time that’s important, but what you DO with the time you’ve been given is. He would ask, What are YOU doing with the moments provided for you? How are you filling your seconds, hours, days, and years?
I think I know how Agnes would answer Seneca. She’d answer him the same way the apostle Paul would in the reading from 1 Corinthians that we heard today.
And the answer she would offer him is “Love.” Love is the only lasting thing anyone can give. Love is the only way we can reach into eternity. Love is the legacy left by people who know how to truly live. The only meaningful life is a life of love. As Paul says, “Love never dies.”
Agnes knew that life is a moment-by-moment event, crafted through the love she had for Tony, for her children and their children, for her church family, and for her community. For Agnes, life was love. And love was commitment.
Agnes slipped away peacefully. In fact, she said the word “peace” over and over again as she felt her life drawing to a close. After I prayed with her, she looked me in the eye and said “Peace be with you.” To which I responded “And also with you.”
I began to wonder what peace meant for her. How she could fall into death with the word “peace” on her lips. Not everyone could do that. Most people fight against the on-coming train that will take them away.
Agnes knew peace because she knew her saviour, and she trusted him with her life and her death. She trusted the promises of a new and everlasting life because she knew Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life, who died on the cross and rose again for her. She knew that Jesus had claimed her as his own with a grip that would never be let loose. She knew that her name was written in the Book of Life with permanent ink. She knew that nothing would separate her from the love of God in Christ Jesus her Lord.
But also, she could say “peace...peace” while life drained from her body because she could see the fruit of a life well lived. That fruit gathered around her bed, and surrounded her with prayer. She could see the good she was leaving behind. She knew her legacy of love will be honoured and lived by all who’d been touched by her kindness. She could say “peace...peace” because she lived the most meaningful of lives: a life of love. That is the gift she’s left behind for us. That is our inheritance as those who have received her love.
So, the question her life asks you, what are YOU doing with the time you’ve been given? What will YOU leave behind? How are YOU filling your seconds, hours, days, and years?
Agnes left behind a legacy of love given and love received. The love of her family and the love of her church. And the love of her saviour Jesus in whom she now rests, taking her place among the company of all the saints in light.
May her legacy be our legacy as well. Amen.