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Worship at the Abbey

Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on All Souls' Day: Tuesday 2 November 2010

2 November 2010 at 17:00 pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Most of us come to this service tonight with vivid memories of departed relatives and friends, with a sense of loss and with a degree of pain. We remember those we have loved and who have loved us, those we love still, but from whom we are now parted. For some, the sense of loss and pain is recent and sharp; others have come to terms with the loss and find the pain deadened by the years. We know that those from whom we are parted would not have wanted us to grieve – and yet, naturally, we do, even when we are thankful for a long life well lived, or for a period of acute suffering and privation ended. Where death has been sudden or tragic death, we can be left mystified, bewildered as to what happened and why – and what might have been.

We come to remember, and we bring our thoughts, our uncertainties, our pain to our Lord Jesus Christ. Standing at the foot of his cross, we lay it all out before Jesus. He knows and understands. He wept for his friend. He suffered the agony of betrayal, denial and loss. He was crucified and hanged on a tree. He reaches down to comfort and strengthen us in our loss. Even in his final agony, Jesus said to his blessed Mother of his beloved disciple and friend, ‘Woman, behold thy son’, and to his friend ‘Behold thy mother.’ So, we remember, and we feel the strength of the Lord’s comfort in our loss. To remember those we love and see no longer narrows the gap between us, recalls to our minds their vivid reality and life. And the Lord’s comfort is real and strong. His Spirit’s power works in us, comforting, strengthening, renewing.

But there is more to our observance this evening than remembering and being comforted. If there were nothing more, we should accuse ourselves of selfishness. We come to pray for those we love with a heartfelt plea that God will draw them to himself and give them in his presence a place of light, happiness and peace. We do this in confident expectation, remembering the words of Jesus himself that we heard in the Gospel this evening, ‘Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away.’ [John 6: 37]

In this solemn service, when we remember and pray, we give our whole attention to that task. Some of the most powerful and moving music of the Church has been written for requiem masses, services like this. So, unusually tonight, we are not distracted by hymn singing but can give our whole attention to the words and music of the choir and to our own thoughts. Both the words and the music itself inform and contribute to our prayer. We have heard the choir plead for the dead that eternal rest might be theirs and light perpetual shine on them. We hear there an echo of the Revelation to St John the Divine, ‘I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.’ [Revelation 21: 22-24]

Soon we shall hear, as the bread and wine are brought to the altar, a prayer directly addressed by the choir to our Lord Jesus Christ, that ‘the souls of the faithful departed [might be delivered] from the punishments of hell and from the deep lake.’ We may be inclined to think this an unnecessary or lugubrious prayer, with its reference to hell and the deep lake. We should see it, rather, as a confident prayer, relying on the saving sacrifice of Christ on the cross, on Calvary’s tree. It is also a necessary prayer, that God will forgive us our sins and free us from punishment and the pain of death to live with him in joy and bliss for ever. We may not simply rely on the mercy of God and suppose that the way to eternal life with Him is wide and easy. Jesus said, ‘strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.’ [Matthew 7: 14] If in our most honest moments we recognise our own faults and our shortcomings, to put it in the traditional language of the Church, our sins, then honesty demands that we do not simply gloss over the faults of those we love and mourn as if they never were. We ask God’s forgiveness for them, trusting that our prayer, offered in the power of the eternal sacrifice of Calvary, will help them.

In this holy Eucharist, the eternal sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross is remembered in a particularly powerful way. The benefits Jesus won on the cross for those who believe and trust in him are available for us who enter into Holy Communion with our Lord and Saviour and for those we bring with us into that prayerful moment of communion. Here we can have a vivid sense of being united with Christ in his sacrifice and united as well with those we love and mourn and from whom in this earthly life we are for a time divided. One day we believe we shall be united with them in paradise.

The final words the choir sings are the ancient prayer, sung tonight very simply to plainchant: that, in the power of the sacrifice of Christ, the angels will lead into paradise those for whom we ourselves have prayed. ‘May the choir of angels receive you, and where Lazarus is poor no longer may you have eternal rest.’

We do not need to pretend to be perfect. We do not need to pretend that those we love and mourn were perfect. In the incarnation, Jesus the Son of God and Son of Man took to himself our flawed humanity, and through his death and resurrection he took that humanity to heaven. So he opened a gateway through which, if we trust in him and do all we may to follow in his way, we too can come to the glory of heaven. So we offer our humble prayer and our fervent hope for those we love and see no longer that they are united with him in paradise. We remember the words of St Paul, ‘For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.’ [Romans 6: 5]

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