We watched the televised pictures intently as invited guests made their way across those familiar damp cobblestones, moving out of the grey afternoon as they entered the door of the church. It was late March. The distance moved by the coffin was poignantly short. Carried by six pall bearers, the porters from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where Professor Hawking had spent some fifty years of his academic life, it had made its journey from the precincts of the college to the neighbouring University Church of Great St Mary’s. Seventy six peals of the church’s ancient bells marked each year of Professor Hawkings’s remarkable life. The gathered mourners were distinguished and diverse: rock stars, astronomers and comedians; colleagues, family and friends. Outside, the surrounding streets were lined by townspeople, students, and staff from the university, seeking to bid farewell; to pay respects.
Stephen Hawking was fascinated by time. He debated the timescale of the universe and of humanity; the beginning and the end; time real and time imaginary. For this reason, the Scripture reading at his funeral, Ecclesiastes 3.1-11, seemed particularly apt:
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh. A time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.”
For me, the televised scenes seemed to signal the end of an era. Those were the same streets I had cycled along, through biting East Anglian winds, often in a hurry and late for lectures. Those were the same pavements where I had glanced in passing through shop windows; those were the same streets where I had stood, with friends, enjoying the warmth of the evening sun. Just across from Great St Mary’s church is the Senate House, and I have a vivid memory of making my way to that place one summer’s day, to encounter my final examination results, posted on the wall for all to see, as was the custom. I knew those places; they were mine: the surroundings and stage of my student days. I remember the awareness of Professor Hawking’s almost mythical presence as part of my being there then. Now, his day in that city was over. My friends have moved on, and so have I.
It struck me, seeing the images of that funeral and those familiar cobbled streets, that in a very real sense, all of us are having the time of our lives. Time is a gift. If there are mysteries and questions about the beginning and the end of time, there is no doubt that each of our lives, in this temporal world, is finite. We must live, and live well, until the day our Creator has given to us is done. In the words of the Psalmist, ‘Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days…turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it’.