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, and whom we so miss?
‘Behold, I tell you a mystery! We shall not all die, but we shall 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.’ Those amazing, thrilling words from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. I can never read them without hearing Handel’s Messiah ringing in my ears! And they are words which tell us just what it is that we are celebrating today. We are celebrating 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. Paul goes on to proclaim in ringing terms, ‘Death has been swallowed up in 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.’ The promise and hope of resurrection, of new life, IS our gospel as Christians. It seems to me that so much in life points to this. Just as winter leads to spring, so death and resurrection, loss and hope, seem to penetrate the very fabric of life itself.
But if you have lost loved ones, and especially if you are recently bereaved, you may be feeling rather differently. Your heart may be aching with loss. You may have a deep faith and a real hope in the resurrection of the dead. Yet you so miss the person for whom you grieve. You may long to be with them again. When I was a parish priest, many people in grief used to ask me whether they could still have a relationship with the person who had died. There is often a deep desire to carry on communicating with those who have died. I know some people, in their longing, go down the route of mediums and spiritualists. I do not believe that is right. But I also believe that we can still be very close to those who have died. The New Testament speaks not of communication, but of ‘communion’, or in the Greek, ‘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 our loved ones who have gone before – and because this union is in Christ, it cannot be broken, even by death. I find that rather wonderful. Koinonia is about our communion with those whom we love but see no longer, but it is a communion at the very deepest level, beyond language: closer, more intimate, it is more ‘spirit communing with spirit’, or in John Henry Newman’s famous words, ‘Cor ad cor loquitur’– heart speaking to heart.
In a real sense then, we can know a deep intimacy with those who have died, and can maybe say and hear things, which were not able to be said when that person was alive. There is a remarkable passage in T S Eliot’s Four Quartets which describes this special communion with the dead: it may be something you understand personally. He writes, ‘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 this was about; this communion beyond language, beyond words. When he lost his beloved mother Monica, he wrote these words in his Confessions: ‘God forbid that in a higher state of existence she should cease to think of me, she who loved me more than words can tell.’ These beautiful and poignant words pouring from Augustine’s heart express I think, what we are doing when we pray for the dead. We are not making petitions to somehow get someone out of purgatory, or into heaven. We are rather carrying on the true work of intercession, which has little to do with words, but is simply being with God, and holding those whom we love, on our hearts before God. And how can we stop loving someone, stop holding them in our hearts before God, stop holding them lovingly in our prayers, simply because they have passed from this life to the next?
Death cannot kill the love which binds us together with our departed loved ones in a bond and a communion which transcends time and space. For it is ultimately the unbreakable bond of love which lifts us above both time and space, and into the very life of God. In our Eucharist today, 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, mysteriously and wonderfully, through the power of love, into the very presence of God, and into the presence of those whom 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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