My husband answered the telephone in Grand Rapids when the sudden message came: “They have been trying to reach you from Switzerland to let you know that Dr. Hans Rookmaaker had a heart attack and died tonight.” Impossible to digest such news, the announcement of the unexpected passage from full activity to death of someone close to us.

Hans Rookmaaker had been a close friend and associate of my husband since 1948. He was professor of art history at the Free University of Amsterdam and a widely known lecturer and author, as well as a member of L’Abri fellowship, working with his wife in the Dutch L’Abri. He was only fifty-four, and we all expected many more years of his ministry of lecturing and writing about the arts from a Christian point of view. On Sunday he had attended the service in the L’Abri chapel. That afternoon he had been lying down because he did not feel well, his wife told me. Then at eight o’clock he felt worse, he told her, and had a slight pain in his chest. Suddenly, within five minutes, he was absent from the body and present with the Lord.

Sudden death creates a sharp line of before and after, and we recognize anew that we are living through a period of history with clear limits. Time and space take on a sharper definition, as the value of being where the Lord wants us to be, doing what he would have us do, is suddenly spotlighted by the lightning streak of death.

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said …” (Luke 2:13–15). The appearance of the first angel with the glory of the Lord shining about him was sudden, and the shepherds were afraid. The message they were given was a sudden one, cutting all history into a before and after, to be known by succeeding centuries as B.C. and A.D. Then there were many angels, and all praising God—a glorious sight and sound for the shepherds to experience. But just as suddenly it was gone. The contrast of light and darkness must have been staggering. The shepherds would never have forgotten that glorious sight, but they told others also whose memories could then contain that most important announcement of a sudden happening: “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10, 11).

Sudden happenings. Death, earthquake, fire, tornado, hurricane, automobile accident, disabling illness, all bringing a recognition of two central realities: the before and after of history, and the continuity of history in which memory is such a central bridge. The promises of a coming Messiah had been given for centuries in increasingly clear terms; yet his birth was also “sudden” and the announcement was sudden. Jesus made it known that his being on earth with his disciples was temporary, and told of his coming death; yet to those who were with him, that death was a sudden happening. And his resurrection and his closeness to them once again in his new, changed body were so sudden as to be incredible to them at first.

“Who will take Dr. Rookmaaker’s place?” I was asked when I spoke of his important contribution to the understanding of the place of art and culture in the Christian view of the whole man. “Nobody,” was my quick reply. God has made us as individual, diverse people with significance in history, each with something both to be and to do that is unique. We are not machine-like parts in a larger machine that can be replaced by new parts ground out in a factory. Each of us is a person who cannot be replaced by another person, and the exact thing that we have to do cannot be done by another.

We mourn over the death of a loved one, and we mourn rightly. Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, and also was angry at death. Satan brought about the first death, the separation, and all of them that take place are of the same origin. We agonize over all the wisdom, understanding and ideas that are no longer reachable as our human friend dies and communication is cut off. Our deep regret and very real sorrow are right. Nobody will take that person’s place.

But the before and after of history as one line after another is drawn must be recognized and met head on. There is something we are meant to do about it. With due place given for the emotions of sorrow, there is also a quick “now because of this, not in spite of it, get on with what you have to do in the time that is left.”

When Jesus was suddenly taken up in a cloud out of the sight of the disciples, two angels came to speak firmly to them: “Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.” They were meant to get on with their most important task of making known the message Jesus had given them to make known.

We are meant to be aware of being in a flow of history. Jesus chided the men who walked with him on the Emmaus road: “O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself’ (Luke 24:25–27). We are to remember past history as well as prophecy, and to live with a seriousness about what we are meant to do, as we seek to do his will moment by moment, day by day.

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