I did not know Bishop Michael Evans, who has died at the sadly young age of 59 after a long illness, but I feel that the manner of his departure provides us with much food for thought.
The bishop knew he was ill, and that his condition was terminal, and (I was going to write “but”, but “and” is correct) he faced up to the prospect of death with Christian resignation.
In January 2011 Bishop Evans broke the news to his diocese that he did not have long to live. He wrote: “Rather than resign, I would like to continue among you as your bishop and the father of our diocesan family until this stage of my life ends. I do not know how long that will be. I am most grateful for the ways you have cared for and so prayerfully supported me in recent years. You remain very much in my thoughts and care.
“As I live now under the shadow of death, my prayer is very much that of St Paul that I may know something of the power of Christ’s Resurrection and a share in his sufferings, trusting that the Lord is with me. I pray that even now I can joyfully witness something of the good news we are all called to proclaim.”
I am sure that I am not alone in finding this exemplary. We are all going to die, and we will all have to deal with that one day. The bishop’s way of dealing with it – low-key, seeing death as just one stage in life, not making a fuss, not appealing to the emotions, but rather to the facts of faith – is a pretty excellent template we could all follow. Above all the bishop saw that this was not just about him – it was about the people of his flock (“You remain very much in my thoughts and care”) and it was about our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and the power of His Resurrection. It was also a moment that could be used to evangelise. In other words, even as he was dying, the bishop carried on working, and looking to the future.
Robin Lane Fox, in his interesting book, Pagans and Christians, attributes the triumph of Christianity over paganism (if memory serves) to one factor above all others: Christianity could deal with the fear of death, whereas paganism could not. In other words the Christians had the answer to the great question raised by Epicurus, namely how to face up to the prospect of personal extinction. Epicurus’s solution was to live without pain, but clearly that answer is not entirely practicable. The Christian proclamation of Jesus who dies and rises shows us that it is through embracing the passion of existence that we attain eternal life, not through fleeing it.
It is also traditionally thought that the ancient martyrs, who faced death so calmly, contributed to the triumph of Christianity: after all, if they could die so cheerfully, it gave the message that death was not the end, but rather a gateway to eternal life.
As I said, I never met Bishop Evans, and never heard him preach, but he has done me a great service through the manner in which he has left this life, for he has helped me deepen my faith. May he rest in peace!