Sermon for ALL SOULS DAY – HIGH MASS OF REQUIEM Saturday 2 November 2013
Sermon preached by The Venerable Douglas McKittrick, Archdeacon of Chichester
Death is a reality. Death is part of life and cannot be trivialised. It is our companion in human experience. Life and death are intertwined it cannot be otherwise. Death is not a failure rather an event within eternal life. “In my end is my beginning”. Death at some time in the future will be a reality for all of us as it is part of our living. The imminence of death becomes the greatest challenge to the true obedience that is required of us throughout life; for at death we need a final obedience that actively summarises the obedient responsibility of our whole lives. Every act of letting go of what has seemed a precious part of our lives, prepares for this final effort to do what is given us to do that is to die. Unbeknown to us each year we pass what could be described as our ‘death day’ and when that day actually reaches us, as Christians particularly those of us of the catholic tradition, we should expect that catholic tradition to minister sacramentally to us in all its rich ceremonies, ritual and rites, in particular a Requiem Mass. I sometimes fear that the Church is in great danger of losing the richness of ceremonial ritual and rites. Christian death requires the sacramental rites, teachings and theology of the Church and especially a Requiem Mass. The soul is being sent on a journey:
“Go forth Christian soul, from this world in the name of God the almighty Father, who created you, in the name of Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, who suffered for you, in the name of the Holy Spirit, who was poured out upon you, Go forth Christian soul “.
At death the Church has a sacramental job to do through its priests and it should not be embarrassed or pussy foot around rather get on with it. When I die, whenever that day is, I want my soul to be prepared by a priest with the rites of the Church, to prepare my soul for its journey. It is the Church’s final pastoral responsibility to make sure that that is done. As a dear friend of mine and a former Vicar of this church has reminded me a number of times in his characteristic Yorkshire tones: “Make sure you have written these things down” Oh the wisdom of Hope!! But he is right. I would not want sentimental eulogies more often or not fictitious in nature and the thought of my soul being subjected to Frank Sinatra’s “I did it my way”…. Help!
This Requiem Mass, as with every mass, celebrates the death and resurrection of Jesus. Sorrow and alleluia are part of the Christian paradox, part of the Christian message. Today the Church commemorates the souls of all its faithful dead. It does so in the only appropriate way it can, by offering the Mass in which we commemorate, yes members of our own families, our friends, past members of All Saints, ordained and lay, benefactors and all the faithful departed whose souls have gone before us marked with the sign of faith that is the cross, a sign of sorrow, joy and victory.
At baptism we enter into the death of Jesus in order that we rise to new life in him. It is our Christian belief that one day we will die in order to rise to full life in Jesus and have a blissful vision in contemplating God in all His perfect glory; a vision for now beyond all human understanding. Baptism then sets us on our way; it is the starting point to the Christian life. The Sacrament of Baptism is a moment in time and eternity as death itself. Baptism and death are related both sacramentally and theologically. At the end of our life it is hoped the Christian is anointed with the sign of the cross before death, what we call the Last Rites, and after death a Requiem Mass for the dead person’s soul. This is the work of the Church. The Sacraments of the Church are the working tools of priests and all sacraments have a purpose. They have a purpose at the beginning and the end of life; they address the Christian soul in its nurture, sustaining it, preparing it for its final journey.
For a priest ministering sacramentally to the dying, the dead and ministering pastorally to the bereaved is an immense privilege, particularly and supremely standing at the altar to offer Mass.
This Requiem is offered in all its mystery, glory, wonder and power. The Mass is a gift to the Church from Jesus, it is the extension of his own sacrificial death and resurrection here and now, the Mass proclaims the death and resurrection of Jesus until he comes again. It is no mere remembrance, it is infused with the Holy Spirit of God, it is powerful. The Mass is what the Church has been given by Jesus and every catholic Christian should expect a Requiem to be offered for them after their death. It’s important to have these things written down. A Requiem Mass demonstrates how important it is for the Church always to have in its mind the souls of its faithful departed. The Requiem Mass should be part of the rhythm of liturgical life. The Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed is a liturgical celebration where the Church gives particular attention to its faithful dead. It is also for the living, for us, a celebration of hope. Hope, as St Paul says in our second reading from Romans does not put us to shame. Jesus is our hope. None other than Jesus, he is our sufficiency, he is our hope, he is our all. “Jesus …Jesus only … Jesus always … Jesus in all things.” Hope is not to be mocked. As the late theologian Karl Rahner wrote:
“Hope is not simply the attitude of one who is weak and at the same time hungering for a fulfilment, but rather the courage to commit oneself in thought and deed to the incomprehensible and uncontrollable which permeates our existence ( i.e. God) and as the future to which it is open, sustains it”.
In hope we commemorate our faithful dead to that incomprehensible and uncontrollable which is God. Doing so is an expression of both God’s love for them as they are his creation, as we are his creation, an expression also of our responsibility and our love for them. Christians never forget their faithful dead. One day our hope is that we will be remembered and loved as they are now at this altar. For the Christian love never dies it is enduring through life and death. Christian hope then, of which this liturgy speaks, is motivated by an unshakeable love in the Father who loves us and who loved us first, a love which is personal to each of us a love which will see us through death. We see this love demonstrated personally each day in God’s willingness to forgive over and over again our falleness, our blindness, giving constantly to each of us new strength to restore us in our weakness, to restore our sight that we may strive to see things through the eyes of Jesus. God constantly seeks to free us from all that could hinder our drawing closer to him each day, from us drawing close to that day of our death when our souls will return to God. What hope! What ecstasy! The late German theologian, Father Bernard Haring wrote:
“Christ is our hope through faith, but faith conceived as an absolute readiness to listen to him, to treasure up his words in our heart, meditating and acting upon them. It is faith understood as a joyous, grateful acceptance of the one who is our saviour and our hope.”
Our Saviour and our hope is Jesus, and Jesus alone. It is he who invites us in faith and hope to offer this Requiem for the Faithful Departed. We are not here out of duty, rather because we believe. We believe that Jesus is, as he described himself, both the resurrection and the life a glorious mystery. We cannot know everything God has planned for, we offer this Mass in faith and hope and the fact that we don’t know everything God has planned for should not be a cause for anxiety but actually a cause for tremendous relief. As that great 14th century mystic, Mother Julian of Norwich said in that familiar phrase: ‘All shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well”.
Faith and hope in Jesus is sufficient: All shall be well. This Requiem is offered in that faith and hope, there is no place here for spiritual desolation or abandonment, this Mass assures us that everything is in the hands of God and we remember the words of Jesus from this morning’s Gospel: “And this is the will of him sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raises up on the last day.”;
The living and the dead are united in God. It has always been thus and always will be. This Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, as indeed with our own lives is completely and utterly in the hands of God. All God seeks of us now is to be strong in that faith and hope. As we pray for our dead, putting where we can, faces to their names let us do so trusting in that rock-like dependability of God. After all the Church proclaims how all God’s deeds are perfect and just; God is God of the impossible; he is father and mother to his children; He is the God who is always next to us; he is the God who forgives us abundant in mercy. The God who loves us and delivers himself up to death for us; a God who rose from the dead for us.
Death is a reality; Alleluia is a reality too. For it is the song and rhythm of the Church, God’s Easter People. There is real danger at present of a Christianity without an Alleluia. Alleluia is what the world in all its pessimism, wars, sickness, corruption and depression expects of Christianity. We shall leave this Mass today as messengers of hope; a hope that offers new life. A simple glance at the crucifix here in this church should remind each of us that God is not defeated. The true believer must try to face up to death so as to grow in a sense of the resurrection this is the Church’s witness to the reality of death when ministering to the dying and the bereaved. Since the resurrection we have no need not to stare death in the face.
We have come to pray for our faithful dead and what can we say to God on behalf of our dear departed than that which the Church has always said:
“Rest eternal, grant to them O Lord and may light perpetual shine upon them”.