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All Soul's Day – Br. Geoffrey Tristram

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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10 Comments

  1. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas on October 20, 2014 at 10:24

    It is so good to read these heartening, faith-filled words as we mourn Br. Tom. Thank you. Our thoughts and prayers are with you, Geoffrey, and with your whole community.

  2. Frederick Imbimbo on October 19, 2014 at 21:31

    I mourn with you the loss of Brother Tom Shaw. I met Fr Shaw when I first came to St John’s Bowdoin Street in September 1975 and I believe he had just arrived himself in the novitiate. It was an honor to be the monastery organist for community services in Fr Paul’s last years as Superior to Tom Shaw in his first years as Superior. His celebration of the Eucharist and sermons were wonderfully energizing during a time of great change for the order, for the Episcopal Church and the world. He was able to hold it all together so beautifully with the grace of the Love of God in his ministry. Thanks be to God for his blessed life and ministry.

  3. Beth Ann Maier on October 19, 2014 at 07:25

    Grace, comfort, and peace be with all of you in this time of losing your earthly friend and brother. The communion of saints is that much richer today.

  4. Ruth West on November 3, 2012 at 23:26

    How significant is your good sermon today! I dreamed of my mother and father last night. I was opening the front door of our childhood home,
    as they came in, both with beautiful smiles. When I awakened, I felt as
    if it had been a special kind of communion with them. I had never before
    experienced seeing them together in a dream. I praise God that my parents
    and all His servants finished their course in His faith and fear. I do not dread death, since by His death He took away the sting of death.
    Thank you for this good sermon, dear Brother Geoffrey. REW

  5. Maureen Doyle on October 29, 2012 at 18:14

    The grief of death is not for those who die, but for those who are left here with empty potentials for missed conversations and Healings. As I watched my father die after weeks of Hospice meds, I sensed his brinksmanship and when it ended, I wanted to sing Allelluia.

  6. Mary Howe on October 28, 2012 at 13:42

    This is absolutely beautiful….and so very meaningful. Thank you.

  7. Polly Chatfield on December 6, 2011 at 09:10

    Your mention of Handel’s Messiah had those words singing in my head. What wonderfully triumphant music! When someone dear to us has died we need especially to hear that triumph-song. and think of the Easter hymn in which the word “arisen” is repeated over and over. Then we can lose our personal grief in the great truth of resurrection love.

  8. Mary Halverson Waldo on December 1, 2011 at 21:01

    Both quotations from T.S. Elliot and Augustine, framed in the midst of your reflections, took my breath away. Thank you, Brother.

  9. Mary Robb Mansfield on November 29, 2011 at 13:56

    Your words and the words from scripture hold all the hope and assurance of our faith, and I thank Thank you for the enduring assurances about our future in God. It is good to be reminded — and comes just before my 71st birthday, a time when one seriously considers how brief our stay is here on this beautiful Earth, our island home. As a parish priest, I had the privilege of assuring many who had recently had a parent or a spouse die — and I do believe what I said to them. But nevertheless, it is good to be on the receiving end of the comfort and assurance.

    I thought you might want to know that Ann Ely’s mother, Martha, died within the last twenty-four hours; she was eighty-nine and in hospice care at her home in RI the last two years. Bishop Tom has written to the clergy in the Diocese of Vermont. I know that Tom knows a number of you and deeply appreciates your ministry, as do we all.

    Also, our dear friend Susan Hayden Russell just began as interim at West Newbury. Please hold her and the faithful remnant there in prayer.

    Again, thank you.

    Mary
    The Rev. Mary Robb Mansfield

  10. jane goldring on November 29, 2011 at 09:41

    thanks geoffrey for that homily. i think back when we kept mom home instead of going to the hospital. john & i and the rest of the family had some great laughts with mom and can’t forget how peacefully she passed away. you still think about the good times we had together and will not forget them. jane

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