Humanity and respect

It's now a week since Flight MH17 was shot down, and last night during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony we were reminded how much this tragedy transcends national borders. From the Malaysian flag carried in at half mast, to the powerful minute's silence, with the reminder of how many of our nations and continents had been affected, I had a sense of an international wound which so many in the world are now trying to heal, however tiny their efforts in the much bigger picture.

Earlier that day the global had become personal, as the first forty bodies arrived in the Netherlands. After several days of callous disregard by the militiamen, of chaos and obstruction, we saw simple coffins being treated with honour, dignity and respect. We saw leaders and ordinary people united in quiet mourning, treating bodies which might come from anywhere in the world with the same care they would accord to their own. And although we do not know yet whether the body of Phil Tiernan RSCJ was among those already brought back, from what we saw yesterday we have our assurance that whenever this happens, her remains will be treated with the utmost respect and humanity.

We often say that you can tell a lot about a nation by how it treats its most vulnerable - and there is nothing more vulnerable than a dead body. How we treat our dead - and how we see them treated - matters, because it says something powerful about our humanity and the intrinsic preciousness of each person. The Ukrainians who ventured to the crash site to pray understood this, as do the Red Cross workers still there, and the Dutch officials who decided on full honours for each body.

I can still remember being fleetingly consoled, as the undertakers went to put the lid on my father's coffin, when the oldest among them paused to make the sign of the cross. That brief gesture told me that however many bodies he had prepared and interred in his time, he had never forgotten that he was dealing with something sacred; however practical he might have to be, this, for him, was more than just a job.

God's mercy and faithfulness shine forth in a world wounded by sin. This, the opening sentence of our Constitutions, came to me a few days ago as I was praying about all the violence and pain which fills every news broadcast. These words are a declaration of faith, of a necessary belief that, however dark and hopeless things may seem, God is in there, suffusing the darkness with grace and mercy. We may struggle to see him through the veils of pain, but he is there nonetheless, especially in all those countering the violence and cruelty with courage, humanity and grace.