All Souls' Day 2008
3 November 2008 at :00 am
Lamentations 3: 17-26, 31-33; I Peter 1: 3-9; John 5: 19-25
Remembrance is a solemn duty and this is a solemn time. Remembrance is a duty we owe to those we love. Out of love for members of our families and for our friends who have died, we remember them. How can we forget? They helped to make us who we are. Remembrance is solemn because it is powerful and cannot truly be undertaken lightly: it has the power to cause change for those who remember but also, we believe, for those who are remembered.
Interspersed in this service today, punctuating and illuminating the words of bible readings and prayers and accompanying the sacred moments of the Eucharistic offering and the reception of Holy Communion, are the Latin texts of the Tridentine Requiem Mass, beginning with the text we heard at the entrance of the ministers, which gives the Mass its familiar name: Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine [Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord.] Not only is this the opening text, but also it recurs through the Mass and enunciates its dominant theme: the Requiem is a prayer to God to grant eternal rest to those who have died. Again and again the idea recurs. In a moment we shall pick it up as a refrain for the intercessions. Then it will become more explicit, while the altar is prepared with the bread and wine, when the choir prays on our behalf: “Domine Jesu Christe, libera animas omnium fidelium defunctorum de poenis inferni et de profundo lacu.” [Lord Jesus Christ, deliver the souls of all the faithful departed from the punishments of hell and from the deep lake.]
Such an explicit prayer will strike oddly not only those who are convinced that death is the end and that beyond it is silence but also those who are equally confident that God is bound to offer all those who have died a place in Heaven. We cannot of course ourselves directly know what will happen to us when we die but nor has the Church been able to develop a clear doctrine of life after death. What has been consistently understood and taught by the Church through the centuries has been the belief that each individual, made and loved by God, is precious and has an eternal destiny: life is not cheap but wonderful and the individual not to be recycled but to be preserved and cherished. So there is life beyond death: the guarantee is the core Christian belief in the resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. But that does not of itself imply that all those who die, whatever their belief, whatever their priorities, whatever their behaviour in life, will automatically and as of right come into the presence of Almighty God in Heaven.
One of the most powerful images for me of Heaven is that there, finally, we see God not through a glass darkly but face to face as we are seen by God, and seeing, we know God as we are known by God, and knowing, we love God as we are loved by God. One prayer of Christians through the ages is that they – we – shall be ready for that moment, that it will not come upon us suddenly and unprepared. One of the most privileged duties of the priest is to pray with those who are dying, to give them in the name of Christ absolution from their sins, to anoint them with the holy oil, to give them their last Holy Communion, known as the viaticum, literally the food for the journey. Conscious of sin and repeated failure, of our love of self being so often greater than our love of God, we should all hope not to die without that preparation. Nor can we readily imagine the shock of the moment of death being followed by the fullness of that Heavenly vision, that glorious and eternal presence, that light of pure love shining on us. Driven by these considerations the Church has taught that after death there is a period of preparation, of readying for the Heavenly vision, of purification, sometimes called Purgatory. It is not a terrifying but a merciful concept. Nor is it to be confused with Hell, which is the place of the absence of God, for those who have deliberately chosen to turn away from God, and to live and behave in complete denial of Him, resolutely and consistently, to the end of their life. In Purgatory the angels of God gently prepare the soul for the fulfilment of its encounter with the living God.
The final prayer to be sung by the choir during the departure of the ministers, In paradisum deducant te Angeli [May the angels lead you into Paradise], is the first and only prayer to be addressed direct to the departed soul. At a funeral these words are sometimes sung as the coffin is carried from the church at the end of the service. Our solemn duty of remembrance fulfilled and of prayer to Almighty God that the departed soul might rest in peace, and that the body might one day rise in glory, we are able to address the soul personally. This prayer a priest will use at the moment of a person’s death. We hear something like it in Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius: “Go forth upon thy journey, Christian soul! Go from this world! Go, in the name of God the omnipotent Father who created thee! Go in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, Son of the Living God, who bled for thee! Go, in the name of the Holy Spirit, who hath been poured out for thee! Go on thy course and may thy place today be in peace and thy dwelling be in Paradise.”
May the souls of the faithful through the mercy of God rest in peace!