It is time to reopen the window. Every Sunday evening, beginning in September and running through May, we open a window on the world to learn how to think about the world in a Christian way.
This week I want to talk about the life and death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Early Sunday morning, August 31, 1997, the Princess and two companions were killed in a high speed automobile accident along the River Seine. I do not want to discuss what will become of the Royal Family, or the blood alcohol level of the driver, or the paparazzi who swarmed over the crash site.
Instead, I want to talk about grief. The outpouring of sorrow over Diana’s death is unprecedented. Her death is the most widely-lamented in the history of the world. Why is that? What does Diana’s funeral teach about grief and about the human condition?
There are many reasons to mourn the passing of the Princess. There is the natural feeling of sorrow for her sons, William and Harry, who must now make their way through life without the guidance of their mother. Their own sense of loss was evident as they escorted their mother’s coffin in their last, deeply moving act of filial devotion.
Since she was such a young woman there is also the sorrow of unfulfilled expectation. A promising life has been cut short, as it seems to us. “The People’s Princess” will no longer be able to carry on her compassionate work for the Red Cross, for AIDS patients, for victims of land mines, or for suffering children around the world.
Then there is the loss of beauty. Glamor was a large part of Diana’s international appeal. She was chased and gawked at and photographed and finally consumed for her beauty.
Diana’s struggles and failures in life also contribute to the grief. The story of her marriage to Prince Charles is almost a parable of the human condition. It started out like a fairy tale. A noble man and a beautiful woman fall in love. They are married in the most beautiful of surroundings. It is all long white dresses and golden carriages, for they are wealthy beyond compare.
But then fantasy meets reality and the fairy tale becomes a tragedy. A tragedy is the sad story of the decline and fall of great persons. Charles and Diana were great persons: royal, wealthy, famous, influential. But their very greatness made their personal struggles all the more tragic. They fell out of love. They were unfaithful. They turned against one another and finally sought to destroy one another. Diana is not mourned because she lived a perfect life but because she, like us, was tragically flawed.
Diana’s unhappy demise reminds us of another fairy tale turned tragedy. Our noble father Adam fell in love with our beautiful mother Eve (Gen. 2:23). They were happily married in beautiful surroundings (v. 24). The whole world belonged to them (1:28-30). But then they fell out of love with God and with one another (3:6). They were unfaithful and turned against one another in mutual recrimination (vv. 7, 12).
If only… if only things could have turned out differently. This is our lament, both for the Royal Couple and for our first parents. If only they could have stayed in love. If only they could have lived happily ever after. The reason we wish fairy tales would never end is because God made us for perfection. We love happy endings because we are human beings who were made to be happy, both with God and with one another. Although paradise is lost, we have never stopped longing to go back to Eden.
The Princess of Wales was still longing for paradise the day she died. On the evening of her death she received a diamond ring worth some $200,000 and a promise of undying love from Dodi Al-Fayed. In an interview earlier that day she confided that she had finally found “perfect happiness.” Yet just hours later she was fighting for her last breaths in a pile of twisted metal in a Paris tunnel.
Life is no fairy tale. Human existence is fragile, tragic. The Bible says:
It is better to go to a house of mourning
than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of every man;
the living should take this to heart (Eccl. 7:2).
Taking the death of another human being to heart is to feel its pain and to share in its loss. It is to remember that every life is a gift from God and that death is our last enemy (1 Cor. 15:26). To take death to heart is also to recognize that some day you will die. Your life did not end in a fatal car crash in France in August, 1997, but it will end sometime, somewhere, somehow. Taking death to heart is also to confess that what Adam and Eve and Diana needed, and what Charles needs, and what we all need is to know Jesus Christ. He alone gives eternal life.
The Scripture and prayers sung at Diana’s funeral show how to grieve a death and how to prepare for one’s own death:
We brought nothing into this world and it is certain we can carry nothing out. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord (1 Tim. 6:7; Job 1:21).
Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; shut not thy merciful ears unto our prayer; but spare us, Lord most holy, O God most mighty, O holy and most merciful Saviour, thou most worthy Judge eternal, suffer us not, at our last hour, for any pains of death, to fall from thee. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer).
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org