You may have heard me say in the past that the Christian faith, and specifically the liturgical cycle of feasts and fasts is one of the few ways that connects many of us to the world around or rather, under us. In the past few decades wide open spaces have turned into strip malls. Soil has become a toxic waste, and our feet rarely touch the ground. It is not because we have finally discovered how to fly. Rather it is because out cities have become concrete canyons. In places like Toronto and Montreal there exist a labyrinthine system of tunnels and underground shops, office buildings and walkways which connect most of the downtown to the subway system. There you never have to go outside to swelter on a hot and humid July afternoon, or freeze on a frigid February morning. We have become observers to the world outside us, sheltered from the elements by air conditioning and central heating. Electricity extends the day, far beyond nightfall and what we can do and when we can do it is no longer limited by our need to cooperate with nature, but rather by our ability to harness it.
Life was very different for our pre-Christian and early Christian ancestors whose lives were marked by the ever changing seasons and who observed periods of work and rest, feasting and fasting because the natural world around them imposed it upon them. Spring was a time of light and new birth; summer a time of growth; fall a time of abundance and winter a time of darkness and scarcity. In those natural cycles you can see the liturgical cycle of Easter, Pentecost, Advent, and Lent begin to take shape.
Our pre-Christian and early Christian ancestors who lived within this natural cycle were deeply and intimately connected to it, knowing firsthand the annual cycle of birth, growth and death. It is no wonder then that these ancestors of ours who lived so close to the earth lived so lightly, almost casually, with the mysteries of birth and death. And because death was always so close at hand, the line between life and death was so thin. It is that thinness between this life and the next which our ancestors knew so well, that we celebrate today. There, in this thin place between life and death comes the month of November.
All around us, if we take the time to notice it, and what our ancestors knew so well, is that the world appears to be dying. Days are growing shorter, trees becoming bare, fields are turning brown. Death is all around us. And into this season of death and decay we are invited once again to ponder the mystery and meaning of death as we celebrate the great festivals of All Saints’ and All Souls’ at the beginning of the month and this remembrance of our predecessors in the Society of Saint John the Evangelist at the end of the month.
Our Rule of Life teaches us that these predecessors of ours in the Society are “not dead figures from the past. Risen in Christ they spur us on by their prayers to change and mature in response to the Holy Spirit who makes all things new.” It is this link between this world and the next, that our ancestors knew so well, and which we remember today. Again our Rule reminds us that “they pray for us and that we will be reunited when Christ gathers all creation to himself, so that God may be all in all.”
It is this living communion between past, present and future that gave our ancestors hope and which, if we will allow it, can give hope to us as well. So as we give thanks tonight for our predecessors, we give thanks for the gift of hope which they inspire in us. Not just hope that death is not the final word, but hope that we like them can change and grow until we become the person God wants us to be.
So we remember Charles Neale Field , whose portrait hangs in our refectory, and who established the first parish for blacks in this Diocese. We remember Frederick Puller , a noted ecumenist, theologian and liturgical scholar whose work on the catecumenate and adult baptism in South Africa laid the groundwork for much of today’s baptismal theology. We remember Walter Cousins “who kept the bees” at the Mission House in Oxford. (How could we not remember him!) We remember Walter Pleasance and Reginald Podmore killed in action during the First and Second World Wars. We remember Richard Moreley and Herbert Hanlon , both drowned while returning to the Mission House in Bracebridge after visiting a lakeside mission church. We remember Philip Waggett who monitored the Status Quo at the Holy Sites in Jerusalem during the British Mandate. We remember Simeon Wilberforce O’Neill who lived alone in India for so many years and returned to his station in Indore, India and certain death in order to offer assistance there in the midst of a cholera outbreak. We remember Harold Peacey , a British army chaplain during the First War who was disciplined and removed from his post because he dared teach the troops in the trenches about the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We remember Freeborn Coggeshall, the first member of our community to die. We remember Adam Fifer whose courageous witness as one living with HIV/ AIDS inspired all who knew him. We remember Yoshio Haratani , a Janpanese soldier who was stationed with his battalion outside Hiroshima at the time of the dropping of the atomic bomb and who went into the city after its bombing to offer help and who later died of radiation sickness.
We remember and give thanks for all these men and others because they inspire us to be indifferent to celebrity and success and to trust the power of hidden prayer. They stir us to be prophetic critics of Christendom and its compromises and to be dedicated to the renewal of the Church.
They summon us to have a world-wide vision of mission, to be adaptable to a wide variety of settings, to be available in ministry to all classes of people. They teach us to integrate the catholic and evangelical traditions and dedicate ourselves to the ministry of reconciliation and unity.
And we remember them because they inspire us to change and grow not for the sake of change but because of our relationship with Jesus.
One of the most moving things, I think, that Father Benson wrote was his meditation on the Magi returning home by another way. He writes:
[our] coming to Christ changes everything, and therefore even to old scenes we return with changed hearts and new powers.
It is indeed a greater thing to return to the old world by a new way of heavenly life, and to live, therefore, in the world as those who have been with Jesus, than it is to enter upon new spheres of life but with the old heart. That would be to set about new things in the old way. The necessary thing for us is rather to set about old things in a new way.
None of those men whom we remember today were the same men when they died as when they first entered this community. All of them changed. Some of that change happened gradually and imperceptibly. Other changes happened openly and noticeably. It was not this life that changed them. What changed them was not that they lived “as if” they were constantly in the presence of Jesus. What changed them is that they actually lived day after day in the presence of Jesus, for “our coming to Christ changes everything,” even ourselves.
And it is that which can give us hope, for it is possible for us to become more loving, more forgiving, more generous, more open, more welcoming. All you need to do to know that is true is to pay attention to those in whom we have seen it happen. And that is where our predecessors and ancestors in the faith come in.
When we, like them, live in a world where the line between this life and the next is thin and permeable we can learn to live in hope because what we see was possible in their lives we can know is possible for us as well.
Our pre-Christian and early Christian ancestors knew something about death because they lived so closely to it. They lived it in the annual cycle of planting and harvesting; of feasting and fasting; of spring, summer, fall and winter. They lived close to it in the human cycle of birth and death and they were conscious of another world beyond the grave. This other world filled with all those “whom we love but see no longer” is for us a source of hope and joy because there we see what happens to those who not only live lightly with death, but who live in the constant presence of Jesus, for there they are changed to become more the people God has called them to be. And like them, we too live in this hope: that day by day, and bit by bit we too will become more the people God has made us to be, for every encounter with Christ changes everything, even us.
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