In Celebration of the Life of Ralph B. Hill

Sermon for Thursday December 23, 2010 ||  John 14: 1-6 || Burial Rite II

The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

I want to thank Alex for his wonderful remembrance on behalf of Ralph’s family, and I want to say a word or two on behalf of his St. Stephen’s family.  Because Ralph was so truly loved by all of us—especially at the early service on Sunday morning, at our monthly Soup and Sandwich lunches, and on the “A- Team” that prepares our newsletter for mailing.  His generosity, his jocularity, and his absolutely wicked sense of humor are going to be terribly missed.

Ralph was incredibly intelligent, impishly irreverent, and impeccably dapper—except for that crazy khaki hat he wore everywhere. He was a real gentleman, but never took himself too seriously… one of those rare personalities who could share naughty jokes with the clergy one minute, tell heartrending stories about a friend who had survived Auschwitz the next, segue sideways into a deep discussion about the threat of radical Islam, then leave you laughing with another racy joke or a jab at the democratic party. And invariably, he’d throw in bits of two or three languages in the process, always for the sake of humor. Sitting next to him at Soup and Sandwich definitely kept me on my toes because while he was highly entertaining on the one hand, he was a bit intimidating on the other: he was so scary- smart, so well read, and so enviably well-traveled. I never failed to learn something from my conversations with Ralph, and I can assure you I never failed to laugh!

One of my favorite memories of Ralph is from one of my first Sunday mornings here, which happened to fall in an election year. During the prayers of the people, when parishioners were invited to offer their own prayers of intercession and thanksgiving, amidst all the quiet voices beseeching God on behalf of those in need, or giving thanks to God for this or that blessing, the lone voice of Ralph Hill was suddenly heard above all the others saying, “Thank you, God, for the Republican party!”

I think Ralph liked to tease me, in particular, because I wore this collar–and nothing was too sacred for Ralph! Whether it was politics or religion, he never left this church on Sunday morning without making a joke on his way out the door.  Maybe that’s why every time in the past few days that I’ve read the gospel Pam chose for this afternoon, whenever I got to the part where Jesus says, “..where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going,” I couldn’t help but hear Ralph saying,   “Good Lord, Vicar!  We don’t even know where he’s going—how the heck are we suppose to get there?”

But the truth is, Ralph knew exactly how to get there: by being a cheerful and loyal friend; by being a good and humble man; by being a Christian of faith and integrity.

The first time I spoke to Pam, I said how sorry I was that this had to happen so close to Christmas.  But Pam surprised me.  She said she actually thought it was a blessing that the shock and sadness of her father’s death would be so intimately entwined with the hope and joy of Christmas.  You see, Pam knew, before she had the words to articulate it, that without Christmas there could be no Easter—and that Easter, and Resurrection—is what Christian death—and this service– is all about.

That is, after all, the Christian proclamation:  that death is no longer the final word, but that life is. That death is a doorway into new life—better life—the kind of resurrection life that Ralph now shares with his beloved Lydia…life made perfect in Christ, who’s birth we are about to celebrate.

And this is exactly why we celebrate Christmas, and why it’s so right that we should celebrate Ralph’s life so close to Christmas: Christmas marks the birth of the same Christian hope that will be realized at Easter. When Christ is born, light comes into the darkness.  When Christ dies, the darkness cannot overcome it.  And when Christ is resurrected, the darkness is vanquished.

This is the paschal mystery. Without life there could be no death, but without his death, there could be no resurrection life.

So this year, as you celebrate Christmas—do not let your hearts be troubled. Grieve for Ralph, of course.  But hold on to the Light.  Hold on to the hope.  And remember that for Ralph, it’s already Easter.  Amen.


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