5 Nov 2014

All Soul's - Homily

Homily for the Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed
2nd November 2014
Glenstal Abbey
Rev Martin Browne OSB

 (Lamentations 3: 17-26 1 Corinthians 15: 51-57 Matthew 11: 25-30)

The poet Dylan Thomas, who was born one hundred years ago this week, famously wrote about death:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

On one level, death is the most natural thing in the world. Ironically, it is the only certainty in life. It’s part of the rhythm of times and seasons… of waxing and waning… of full-tide and ebb-tide… of seed-time and harvest-time. However, if I piously say this to someone as they stand, bereft, looking into the grave of a loved one, I should be prepared for a sharp reaction from them. (Maybe even a black eye….) For no matter how much we rationalise death in this way, or no matter how much we try to look at it through the eyes of faith, death hurts. A lot…
The Gospel of St John tells us that faced with the death of his friend Lazarus, even Jesus wept and was greatly disturbed in spirit. We won’t see our departed loved ones again in this life. Death is a definitive and often heart-wrenching separation. It is a kind of amputation…. No wonder then that human nature kicks back against it:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

But even if we go kicking and screaming into that good night, and no matter how much we rage against the dying of the light, die it most definitely does – for all of us….

One of the many ways we cope with the cataclysm of death is by remembering. And November is a good time to do so. It is winter. It is colder and darker and the frailty of life is more obvious than ever. And of course, in this part of the world, the anniversary of the Armistice at the end of the Great War occasions another and poignant kind of remembering. At the beginning of this evocative season of remembrance, the Church gives us the twin observances of the Solemnity of All Saints and the Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed on November 1st and 2nd – and invites us to connect with those who have gone before us; both those who are now in glory, and those who are still on their journey to the full vision of the Face of God.

Our Celtic ancestors believed that the boundaries between human reality and the supernatural world were at their ‘thinnest’ at this time of year, and in particular on the eve of the festival of Samhain, when, they believed, it was possible for otherworldly spirits to be seen. The Christian proclamation, however, is a much more radical one: The boundaries between us mortals and those who have entered upon eternity is not at its thinnest at any particular time of year or on any particular festival. No…. It is at its thinnest – indeed it disappears entirely – when we gather around the altar of God to celebrate the Eucharist.

And so, in the Catholic tradition, our ‘remembering’ of our loved ones who have died isn’t just sentimental nostalgic remembering. Rather, we ‘remember’ them in the mystery of the Eucharist. And in that mystery, they are present to us. We don’t need psychics or mediums to make contact with them, because when we gather to worship, they are with us. That is one of the things we are proclaiming when we say that we believe in the Communion of Saints. It is a most beautiful part of our faith: Our relationship with those who have gone before us endures beyond the grave.

Walk around our church, and in the various side chapels, alcoves and windows, you will see saints depicted in statues, icons and stained glass. Just as their images are around as we pray, so are they – and all the Archangels and Angels, Patriarchs and Prophets, Apostles and Martyrs, Doctors and Confessors and Holy Men and Women – united to us in a communion of praise and thanksgiving when we worship before the Throne of Heaven. As the Letter to the Hebrews affirms, we are surrounded by 'a great a cloud of witnesses'. That truth was the focus of yesterday’s feast of All Saints.

It is part of what we celebrate today in the Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed too. Our loved ones who are still being purified in preparation for the vision of God – the Holy Souls – are also still part of our worship. As we regularly hear in Masses for the Dead: 'For your faithful, Lord, life is changed not ended.' Our departed loved ones pray with us; and we pray with them. And consciously or not, our deepest desire is the same as theirs – to enjoy life with God forever. The long Latin chant which we sang between the first two readings expressed this powerfully: 'One thing have I asked of the Lord, this will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord; to gaze in delight upon the Lord’s beauty, and to be sheltered in his holy Temple.'

Last Sunday’s Gospel and the homily that followed it led us into reflection on love and what it really means. The feast of All Souls can enrich that reflection, because it presents us with a very special expression of love. All love calls us out of ourselves and out of exclusive preoccupation with our own needs and desires. Love draws us towards ‘the other’. And just as the communion of love makes us open towards another and impels us to unity and sharing with another, so it is in the love which is at the heart of the Communion of Saints. We share our worship and intercession before the Father, and so we ask the prayers of each other and of those who have completed their earthly journey. And we pray with and for those who are still en route to the fullness of their heavenly reward. How sad it is that so many parts of the Christian Church think it is inappropriate to offer prayers for the departed! To pray for the dead is to do no more than to express our faith in the reality of our abiding communion of love with them. It is the most natural thing in the world and we do it almost by instinct, in the same way as we automatically whisper a prayer when we hear of a loved one undergoing medical treatment or embarking on a major journey. St Thomas More put it most beautifully in his last letter to his daughter Margaret on the night before he was executed in 1535: 'Pray for me, and I shall for thee, that we may merrily meet in heaven.'

But something much bigger than our communion with the departed is at the heart of today’s commemoration - wonderful as that connection undoubtedly is. And this is where Christians really can rage against the dying of the light: Death is real, for sure. It is a heart-breaking trauma. But the True Light does not die and cannot be extinguished. Death and the grave are not our ultimate destiny and they are not the destiny of our departed loved ones either. For the Lord, gentle and humble of heart, who bids us come to him has plans for us, for all the dead, and for the entire cosmos.

'We will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.'
In the rawness of our sadness, we aren’t always able to take in this central truth of the Christian proclamation during the funerals of our loved ones. But maybe in the less fraught mood of this Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed it is easier to proclaim and truly affirm it: Jesus Christ is Lord. He who offered up his life for us on the altar of the Cross and offers his Body and Blood on the altar of this and every church, week by week, is risen from the dead. He is the fulfilment of the Father’s plan for his Creation and he will come again ‘at the last trumpet’, inaugurating the new heavens and the new earth.
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
‘Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?’

'This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,

His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.
I will hope in him.

It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.'

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