A friend of mine was preaching at an All Souls’ Day service, about life after death, and afterwards asked his churchwarden what he thought would happen to him after he died. He said, “I suppose I’ll go to everlasting bliss, vicar, but I wish you wouldn’t talk about such unpleasant subjects!”
For Christians, death is not an unpleasant subject – something unmentionable, to be talked about in hushed tones. Death is something about which we have a lot to say – and we need to say it to a society where death is so often unmentionable, the last taboo. The future of each one of us is uncertain, but the one sure thing is that we shall all die.
Some people go to extraordinary lengths to deny this truth. The desperate attempts to disguise the physical effect of aging. One reads of people spending hours every day in an oxygen tank, making plans to deep freeze their bodies so that they perhaps will be resuscitated in years to come. Anything to deny the last enemy.
In our “Brave New World,” where scientific discoveries give us more and more the illusion that we are in control of our lives and our destinies, death stands almost as if in mockery of our best laid hopes and plans.
Today we celebrate All Souls Day: we celebrate? How can we celebrate, when shortly we shall be remembering by name before God our loved ones who have died?
“Behold I tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible.” I can’t read these words without hearing Handel’s Messiah .
Today we celebrate what lies at the very heart of our faith as Christians. Jesus truly died, and yet was raised to life by God. And all who have faith in Jesus, although we, too, will die, will also be raised to life by God. St. Paul in that great Chapter 15 of the First Letter to the Corinthians goes on to proclaim in ringing tones that “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where O death is your victory? Where O death is your sting. The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
It seems to me that everything in life points to this. Just as winter leads to spring, so death and resurrection seem to penetrate the very fabric of life itself.
I recently read again that lovely children’s book, which has just been made into a film, Frances Hudgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden . I love the part where, as spring comes, the garden bursts into new life, so the young Colin gets off his sick bed and regains the use of his legs. Something fills him with new life. We read: “At that moment something rushed all through him – a sort of rapturous belief and realization, and it had been so strong that he could not help calling out, ‘I shall live forever. I know I shall live forever.”
But if you have known what it is to be bereaved, however deep your faith and your belief in the resurrection of the dead, you still miss that beloved person. When I was a parish priest, many people asked me whether they could still have a relationship with the person who had died. Many at first, want to carry on communicating with them and have gone the route of mediums and spiritualists. I do not believe that this is right. The New Testament speaks not of communicating but of communion or koinonia . Communion speaks of that special relationship and union and fellowship between those who are bound together because of their common union in Christ. The communion of saints links us with those who have gone before, and because this union is in Christ, it cannot be broken, even by death.
Kononia is about our communion with those whom we love but see no longer, but communion at the deepest level, beyond language, closer, more intimate, spirit with spirit.
There is a remarkable passage in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets which describes this extraordinary communion with the dead. It may be something you understand personally:
“And what the dead had no speech for, when living, they can tell you, being dead. The communication of the dead is tongued with fire, beyond the language of the living.”
St. Augustine knew what the communion was about. When he lost his beloved mother, Monica, he writes in his Confessions , “God forbid that in a higher state of existence she should cease to think of e, she who loved me more than words can tell.”
These beautiful lines from Augustine, for me, express what we are doing when we pray for the dead. We are not making petitions to try to get someone out of purgatory, or into heaven. We are carrying on the true work of intercession, which is quite different. In Michael Ramsey’s book The Christian Priest Today he says that true prayer, true intercession, is not really to do with making petitions, or indeed with uttering words at all. It is, rather, simply being with God with others on our hearts: being with God and holding those we love before him – and how can we stop loving someone, stop holding them in our hearts before God, simply because they have passed from this life.
Death cannot kill the love that binds us together in a bond which transcends time and space.
For it is ultimately the unbreakable bond of love which lifts us above both time and space, into the very life of God himself.
And in our Eucharist this evening, as we celebrate again the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the present is once more shot through with the timeless, and we are brought through love, into the very presence of God and into the presence of those we love, the communion of saints and the whole company of heaven.
Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
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