Sermon for All Souls’ – Solemn Mass of Requiem Thursday 2 November 2017
SERMON PREACHED BY RIGHT REVD. STEPHEN CONWAY, BISHOP OF ELY on ALL SOULS’ DAY
Wisdom 3:1-9; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 6:37-40
“This is the will of him that sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”
In Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell sits alone at his desk late one night. The royal supremacy has been declared and he worries about how to persuade the nation to accept his religious and political revolution. His problem is the pull of the past:
“[B]eneath Cornwall, beyond and beneath this whole realm of England, beneath the sodden marches of Wales and the rough territory of the Scots border, there is another landscape; there is a buried empire where he fears his commissioners cannot reach. Who will swear the hobs and boggarts who live in the hedges and hollow trees, and the wild men who hide in the woods? Who will swear the saints in their niches, and the spirits that cluster at holy wells rustling like fallen leaves, and the miscarried infants dug into unconsecrated ground: all the unseen dead who hover in winter around forges and village hearths, trying to warm their bare bones? For they too are his countrymen: the generations of the uncounted dead…”
Mantel’s Cromwell evokes an enchanted world, where spirits are real, and where the dead are close – still our countrymen and -women, still gathered with us around our hearths or kitchen tables, walking with us even as we feel their absence. All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days speak of the reality of that world of mutual belonging: we are part of the communion of saints, God’s church in every time and place, the faithful men and women through the ages.
This evening we reflect that in a more personal way. There is another landscape to all our lives; our unseen dead – both those whose loss we still feel keenly and painfully, and those who hover somewhere in the edges of our memories. As in this requiem we remember them before God, we recognise that the ties that bind us in this life, still hold. As we pray for our dead, commending them to God’s loving arms and safe keeping, we do so not to deny the reality of death, of loss, or to pretend that the searing emptiness of grief is unimportant, it is to acknowledge that reality. It is to know that we are but mortal, of dust and will return to it. Today, with its notes of sorrow and lament, grief and lost-ness, is ultimately hopeful, witnessing to the promise that with God nothing is lost.
The gospel reading we heard comes from John chapter 6, in which Jesus has fed the five thousand from the small offering of five barley loaves and two fish. After everyone has eaten their fill, Jesus tells his disciples,
‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.
None of the bread is lost; the fragments are worth keeping. The next day Jesus teaches the crowd, telling them ‘I am the bread of life’, and whoever eats of him will never be hungry, that they will have eternal life and be raised up on the last day. The Father’s will is that the Son should lose nothing of all that he has been given, that he will raise it up at the last day. Nothing should be lost; the fragments are worth keeping. What seems lost to us will – we trust – in Christ be gathered in, raised up at the last day.
And that is why, weeping at any grave we can still sing ‘Alleluia’, the Church’s Easter song of praise and protest: praise to God who created us and in Christ has redeemed us; and protest that, even in the face of death, we can dare to hope that because God raised Christ from the dead, death is not the end. We can dare to hope even in the midst of our loss and lostness, that ultimately, nothing is lost – all is gathered up, every lamb safely gathered into the fold.
Fauré’s setting of the requiem, sung for the mass this evening, is in part lament, the outpouring of grief and love, but it does not leave us weeping at a graveside:
Rather, with Lazarus, once poor, we are carried home to Jerusalem on flights of angels. It is ultimately hopeful in the face of our grief for those we have lost, and of our own mortality. It trusts, as the reading from Wisdom had it, that the souls of the righteous are held safely in the hand of God. Nothing is lost, and all the fragments of our lives are gathered up, gathered in, and made whole.
And for the here and now, it is hopeful that with another Lazarus, once three days’ dead, we are called to step out into daylight, forsake the graveclothes, alive to the possibilities of new beginnings held out to us in Christ. Many of us have had unfinished business with those whom we love but see no longer. We can experience terrible guilt or even anger on top of our loss. We might seek counsel from a priest, or a Cruse bereavement counsellor. Both will tell us, I hope, that we need to pray continually. The faithful – and the not so faithful – departed are prayed for at every Mass. We ourselves shall rejoice in these prayers beyond our own death.
The great Anglican theologian, Austin Farrar, once preached at All Souls’ in Oxford, some of which we heard read at Evening Prayer earlier this evening. He said that we must remember that we are members of one another in the mystical body of Christ. Just as we embraced by the thought of God beyond all number and all imagining, so each soul must embrace the other souls. Without this mutual embracing beyond space, time and death itself, Farrar wonders what the point of prayer for the living let alone the dead would be. “God is not content to care for each severally unless He can also, by His Holy Spirit in each one of us, care through us for all the rest.”
I recently preached at the memorial service for Bishop Geoffrey Rowell in another glorious Butterfield church. I alluded to Cardinal Newman’s Dream of Gerontius. This is, obviously, a work which evokes the life of heaven and the goal of every holy soul. It is also an ageing man’s reflection on his own mortality and how to be set free. Even when we feel blind and bound as though we were wrapped in our grave clothes like the emerging Lazarus, we are free to range in our praying and hoping across the whole mystical body of Christ, remembering the whole Church both militant here in earth and triumphant in heaven and invoking angels, archangels and all the heavenly host. We perceive God’s glory even here in this vale of tears. The journey to the perfect light of glory has begun. The angel says to Gerontius at the end of the poem: “…Swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here, And I will come and wake thee on the morrow.” Amen.