Sermon for ALL SOULS’ DAY – HIGH MASS OF REQUIEM Monday 3 November 2014
Sermon preached by The Very Reverend Victor Stock
“Supposing him to be the gardener she said to him, Sir if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him “.
The evangelist John brings his masterwork to a conclusion with a story of ambiguity – the risen Christ is not recognised or perhaps recognisable. Today Syria and Iraq, the unambiguous cruelties of Isis – then the horror of the Ebola epidemic and for us in Europe civilisation destroyed by the First World War – all this sees belief in God carried away.
So it was after the Great War that the Requiem Mass began to be celebrated and prayer for the dead offered in a Church of England altered out of all recognition by 1914-1918. Everything seemed to have been carried away in the pointless stalemate of the blood-soaked trenches of the Somme and Passchendaele – so movingly evoked by the blood-red tide of poppies that swamp the moat at the Tower of London. [If you have not been yet, I urge you to go and see this most powerful and moving installation].
Nothing was left but prayer – “tell me where you have laid him?” the cry of wives and lovers and sisters and brothers and parents, for many – though not all – the endless ranks of the white crosses of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission yield the answer.
The Medieval Church, likewise reeling from the horrors of warfare, famine and the Black Death knew the brevity and ambiguity of life and turned to the hopeful idea of purgation after death as part of a journey however painful and mysterious towards God. But, as so often in Christian history, the need to define and explain, to deal in time where there is no time, led thoughtful Reformers to decry prayer for the dead as manipulative interference with the implacable justice of the Creator and in the Churches of the Reformation like ours prayer for the departed died. However – even before the Great War here in the 19th century – the people of All Saints Margaret Street knew prayer for the departed met a deeply felt need that would not be denied. Thus for many years now this All Souls Day Requiem, where we give thanks and pray for those we have loved and lost but see no longer.
Fragmentary memories blur – become less distinct as time passes…Passes for us, but not we believe for God. John’s great Gospel ends with this story of ambiguity “supposing him to be the gardener”. But it is the same Gospel writer who gives us the Feeding of the Five Thousand as a prelude to his theology of the Eucharist – a clue perhaps to the Divine purposes for the departed – “gather up the fragments that nothing may be lost”.
All Souls Day is sombre, grief wrenches, no one who dies, no one, is perfect- without sin. All need a Saviour. Thus the requiem helps us face these realities. We don’t have to be happy on All Souls Day – we have to be honest. It is exactly here in our need that we are one with Mary Magdalena in the story – “Sir, if you have carried him away tell me where you have laid him?”
As in our grief and blindness – and Mary was weeping – as much as we are able to face into our pain and loss – we may faintly – just faintly hear far away in the distance – “Jesus lives! Our hearts know well nought from us his love shall sever; Life nor Death, nor powers of Hell tear us from his keeping ever”. In the All Souls Day Requiem a door may open in Heaven – where the fragments are gathered up that nothing may be lost.