Heavenly Father, we thank you for all those whom we love but see no longer. As we remember them in this place, hold before us our beginning and our ending, the dust from which we come and the death to which we move, with a firm hope in your eternal love and purposes for us, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
All Souls’ Day finds us gathering here on what is inevitably a solemn occasion, a liturgy of memories tinged still with grief and a sense of loss, especially for those of us who have witnessed the death of someone much loved; a parent, a wife or husband, a child, a family member on military service, a young person of immense potential on the threshold of adulthood.
All of us come here this evening not only to remember them, not only to feel the prayerful companionship of others. We are also here to remember our mortality – that we are, as that word suggests, all ‘bearers of death.’ As we remember loved ones and consider our own mortality, we come here to hear again, in one form or another, words of scripture that confront the certainty of our dissolution: ‘The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness,’ (Lamentations 3:22-23)
We come back to the scriptures and to our churches to hear these words, not because we hope thereby to escape the reality of death, or to deny its potent finality. Christians are not wishful thinkers, or deniers of the real world. At the heart of our faith in God is the story of a man who died believing in the power of God to confront, redeem and transform that most intractable of human limitations, namely death itself. We come here to hear the words of Jesus: ‘I am resurrection and I am life’ because these words suggest to us something that we have already experienced in our own lives, long before we get to the point of death.
Death and resurrection are supernatural events, which speak of another dimension beyond the natural entropy – the dissolution and decay – of our physical bodies. And that experience of death and resurrection is known by us in our lives: moments when despite the grief or trauma or disappointment or pain of life – as a marriage breaks up, or we watch beside a dear one whose life is ebbing away, or a long-cherished goal is denied us, or we are caught out in some shameful act that fractures the trust of others – we have experienced, and we can experience again, moments of grace and transformation and redemption; when despite the hurt, we find that life has opened up in new, unexpected and undeserved ways – ways that chime with St Paul’s words this evening when he says: ‘Listen! I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet’ (1 Corinthians 15:51-52). The picture that Paul gives us here is not that of a resuscitated corpse but of life transformed into a new entity where ‘death is swallowed up in victory.’
Those moments of grace are moments of resurrection. And that is why we come to hear the words of Jesus: ‘I am resurrection and I am life’, because although extraordinary, mysterious, and beyond rational explanation, they already tally with our experience of life. Just as eternity is not far from our worldly concerns, so resurrection is not far from our daily living. It is simply that death brings thoughts of eternity and resurrection into sharper focus.
There is a sacred story from the Jewish tradition which tells of a certain rabbi and his wife who had two sons to whom they were extremely devoted. One Sabbath morning while the rabbi was teaching the Law in the synagogue both boys were struck by a sudden illness and died. Their mother laid them on a bed and covered them with a white sheet. When her husband came home for his meal and asked where the children were, his wife made some excuse and waited until he had finished his meal. She did not answer her husband’s question, but instead asked one of him. ‘I am placed in a difficulty,’ she said, ‘because some time ago a person entrusted to my care some possessions of great value which he now wants me to give back. I am unsure of what to do. Am I obliged to return these great valuables to him?’
‘That you should need to put this question surprises me,’ the rabbi replied. ‘There can be no doubt about what you must do.’ How can you hesitate to restore to everyone what is his own?’ His wife then rose from the table and asked her husband to follow her. She led him to the room where the two bodies lay and pulled back the sheet. ‘My sons, my sons,’ groaned the father in pain. ‘The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away,’ said his wife through the tears. ‘Blessed be the name of the Lord. You have always taught me to restore without reluctance what has been lent to us for our happiness. We have to return our two sons to the God of all mercies.’
Tonight we are remembering those we have tearfully returned to God. This evening’s liturgy enables us to pray for their eternal peace, to sense the prayerful companionship of others, and to allow God in this holy sacrament to dry our tears. The Christian faith has always taught that love should not be limited to the living. Love and prayer have the power to bridge the last boundary – death itself – and when we celebrate the feast of All Souls we are keeping a pledge not to forget. Not to forget those whose fellowship with us, and with the Church here on earth, extends beyond the grave and gate of death. Not to forget those who can still be touched by the love that finds its voice in prayer.
‘There’s no proving eternal life,’ says the Elder in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, ‘but you can be convinced by the experience of active love. Strive to love your neighbour actively and indefatigably. In as far as you advance in love, you will grow surer in the reality of God and the immortality of your soul.’
That is our hope tonight, as we surround with our love and prayers those whom we love but see no longer in this life – all those we have returned to God with our tears and who now rest in the sleep of Christ’s peace. Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them. May they rest in peace and rise in glory!