We do not believe we lose any of those who have died and gone before us from our greater company.
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster
Friday, 2nd November 2018 at 5.00 PM
Two beloved members of our community have died in the last few weeks. They were both volunteers and regular worshippers here at the Abbey.
Gelda James, just into her 90s, had been for many years not only a regular presence at the Sunday Sung Eucharist but also for a long time a volunteer Abbey guide who frequently joined us for the 12.30 Friday Eucharist. Gelda’s final illness was mercifully brief.
Rachel Whittaker had been a member of the City Council in Westminster and an active honorary steward of the Abbey. I knew her in addition as a trustee of the Grey Coat Hospital Trust, trustee for a number of schools. Rachel had been fighting valiantly against cancer.
Both women were characters, opinionated, with clear standards, and with ready wit; in very different ways each had charm and charisma. We loved them and are saddened to lose them from our immediate company here on earth.
Westminster Abbey is not a parish church, but we are glad to be joined regularly by a significant body of worshippers as well as a great crowd of people who join us once or occasionally in worship here. All are welcome, however often they are here, once or many times: and some become our friends. And we have a body of about 500 volunteers in a great variety of roles in addition to our 350 staff. There is plenty to do here.
We do not believe we lose any of those who have died and gone before us from our greater company, the great galaxy of people who over a thousand and more years have loved and served almighty God in this place and are now part of the great company of the Church beyond, the Church not Militant here on earth but the Church Expectant and the Church Triumphant.
Yesterday we celebrated the Church Triumphant, the great company of men and women whom God has recognised as saints and who dwell with him in the heavenly city for ever, who see God face to face and delight in God’s beauty and love and goodness.
Today we pray for the Church Expectant, for all those who have gone before us marked in Holy Baptism with the Cross of Christ, fed in the Holy Eucharist with the Body and Blood of Christ, that they may be accepted by our beloved Lord Jesus Christ into the glorious presence of almighty God.
I look back over more than forty years as a priest and think of the good and godly men and women who have gone to their rest. Gelda and Rachel so recently departed stand in my mind just at this moment for them all: faithful, very human, but chosen and loved by God, so transformed in his grace from glory to glory.
The reading we heard from the book of Lamentations comes from a moment of despair. The author recognises that he knows no happiness; he has no peace; the glory has departed. But he also comes to see that, however, dark his own experience, however troubling and upsetting, the love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end. God is faithful. Great is his faithfulness. God does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone. He will have compassion. The love of God is steadfast.
This resolution is highly important, for the book probably dates from the time when the leading Jews in Judah had been defeated and taken into exile in Babylon; this happened during the 6th century BC. Perhaps the writer or more probably writers had stayed in Judah and had seen the destruction of the temple and of their traditions of worship and way of life. No wonder they were bereft! Nothing had survived. Had God deserted them? Bereavement often feels like that, especially when the one who has died is young, or has been snatched suddenly away in an accident or something more strange or terrible. How could God let that happen?
Well, we know that we must all die. But when is the question and how: both questions can play on the mind, not just for ourselves but for those who are dear to us. When shall I die? When shall the one I love die? And how shall I die? Will it be quick and relatively painless? Or gentle and slow? Of course we cannot know. So, death can seem a ghastly enemy. But for those who have come towards the end of their span of life, those who have been putting up with increasingly debility or pain or growing weakness, death comes as a friend. We can learn to embrace death and not to be afraid.
Death is our friend, not just because it releases us from the burden of this life, but because it opens for us a gate to greater glory and peace and love. Death is not the end but the beginning of a more glorious life, so we are taught and so we must believe.
In the second lesson from the letter of St Peter our patron saint, the prince of the apostles, we see that death is in fact nothing more or less than a new birth. ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’, St Peter begins. It is all right. God’s love is steadfast. God will not let us down. ‘By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.’ And St Peter promises us that there is a new inheritance kept in heaven for each of us that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading. It will not perish; it cannot perish. It is pure and beautiful. It will not fade away but will sustain us for ever. And even though we have to suffer some trials in this life on earth, we should think of our faith as more precious than gold: it will result in praise and glory and honour when we see our Lord Jesus face to face.
None of this is by magic. It all depends on the sacrifice of our Lord on the Cross. That bloody sacrifice on Calvary, in which Jesus Christ gave his life to forgive sins and to restore communion between human beings and almighty God, is reflected in the un-bloody sacrifice we offer on the altar today. You see this reflected in the passage the choir will sing during the Offertory: hostias et preces tibi Domine laudis offerimus; ‘we offer prayers and sacrifices to you, Lord, and you receive them on behalf of the souls whose memory we recall today; cause them Lord to pass from death to the life which you once promised to Abraham and his seed. O Lord Jesus Christ, King of glory, deliver the souls of the departed from the punishments of hell and from the deep lake lest they fall into darkness.’
This is no prayer of despair, but one of hope and confidence and trust. God’s love is steadfast. If we believe and trust in him, if we seek to conform our lives to the pattern of our Lord’s life, God will be merciful, God will give us a place of light and peace and rest in his glorious presence.
The final words of this evening’s Holy Eucharist are sung by the choir as the clergy leave, ‘In paradisum deducat te angeli.’ ‘May the angels lead you into paradise. Where Lazarus is poor no longer may you have eternal rest.’ This prayer we offer collectively for all those we love who have gone before us, for our relatives and friends, for our faithful fellow worshippers, for Rachel and Gelda and that great multitude of people who have worshipped here and in the perhaps many churches where we have worshipped.
Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord; And let light perpetual shine upon them. May they rest in peace and rise in glory. In Christ’s resurrection: Alleluia! Alleluia!