The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster
Friday, 2nd November 2007
Today, following yesterday’s celebration of All Saints, we remember all those who have gone before us, following the way of Christ, perhaps stumbling on the way, as we know we ourselves do.
There are few churches anywhere in Christendom with so many people to remember. We think of those hundreds of Benedictine monks and their abbots who lived the monastic life in this place during a period of almost 600 years. Not all of them were saints, in any conventional sense, though they tried to follow the way. Their human remains surround us, just as the prayers they offered over the centuries pervade the atmosphere. We think of the vast number of great and good men and women who are buried here or memorialised here, from the time of the first Queen Elizabeth until now: statesmen, soldiers, sailors and airmen, poets, actors, clergy, musicians. Not all of them were great; not all of them were good. Not all of them were saints, in any sense. But their memory lingers in the air of the Abbey.
Then we remember those closer to us personally: members of our families, back through the generations, those unknown to us, but in whose likeness we are formed, those we have known and loved and see no longer; our friends, those of older generations who have influenced us for good, encouraged us in the faith, shared their wisdom, offered their experience; and those whose death still makes our hearts bleed and leaves us with a sense of loss and emptiness, anger or despair.
All these memories and thoughts we bring to God on this day of commemoration of All Souls. The very act of remembering in the presence of God can serve to give perspective, to sooth, to generate sweetness and create confidence. But it is not primarily for ourselves, for our own sake, that we remember. If it were only for ourselves, this would be an act of self-interest, of self-satisfaction, almost an act of unbearable conceit. No. It is not for our own sake that we remember, nor in our own power. We remember for the sake of those we remember. And our remembering is in the name of the Son of God and Son of Man, Jesus Christ, who broke the power of death and transformed the end of this life into a gateway to life eternal with him.
What is it to remember? ‘Remembering’ is one of those words whose power and meaning is generally concealed in its daily use. “Remember to get some milk”; “Remember your keys”. “Don’t forget” – the wipe clean board on the fridge. Yes, “Don’t forget”, but more: “remember”. What is a member? The Latin word means a limb or an organ. In that sense, to use St Paul’s metaphor, we are all members of the body of Christ: limbs and organs. We know what ‘dismembering’ means. That is a word that retains its native power. If ‘dismembering’ means tearing apart, tearing limb from limb, ‘remembering’ surely then must mean putting back together again, reconnecting. I am reminded of the wonderful image in the prophet Ezekiel of the dry bones. Can these dry bones live? The prophet is taken to a valley of dry bones and sees the dry bones linked together with sinews and then with muscle and skin. Finally, the breath of God is breathed into the empty bodies and once again they live. New life!
But on this All Souls’ Day, this remembering or reconnecting is not for our sake who remember, but for their sake who are remembered. Our prayers and our love help them reconnect, bring them back together with the Body, with Christ.
One of the central acts in the Eucharist, not just tonight, but whenever the Eucharist is celebrated, is called the anamnesis, the ‘remembering’. The priest recalls God’s mighty work in the redemption of the world through our Lord Jesus Christ: his incarnation and birth, his life and preaching and wonderful acts, his passion and saving death, his glorious resurrection and ascension into heaven, his sending of the Holy Spirit to give life to the people of God. All this is remembered every time the Eucharist is celebrated, and the bread and wine and the Body and Blood of Christ are offered to our heavenly Father. ‘Remembering’ here too is ‘reconnecting’, ‘recalling’, making present in the here and now what was gloriously achieved in the past, in this case at the very centre point of history. Those caught up in the anamnesis truly receive now the benefits of the passion and death of the Lord, those that is who participate in the offering, both those present and those who are remembered, in other words those who are recalled, who are reconnected.
Our memory, our remembering, in this Eucharist tonight, is no selfish matter, not for our soothing. Rather it brings into connection again with the worshipping community gathered around the table of the Lord all those who are remembered with love, for their salvation. This is the most powerful act possible of the Christian community for those who have gone before us, those who have encouraged us in the faith, those we love but see no longer.
They are united with us in this Eucharist. Our prayers, our offering bring a blessing to them, as does theirs to us. We shall continue to remember, and in our remembering is their peace, for whom Christ died and now lives and reigns Lord for ever and ever.