What do we make of death?

by Fr. Blake

A sermon for the Feast of All Souls, 3 November 2014 (transferred)

This sermon was preached at the 6pm Solemn Requiem for All Souls Day.  The mass setting was the plainchant Missa pro defunctis, with minor propers.

Collect: O God, the Maker and Redeemer of all believers; Grant to the faithful departed the unsearchable benefits of the passion of thy Son; that on the day of his appearing they may be manifested as thy children; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Wisdom 3:1-9, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, John 5:24-27

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Amen.

In recent decades there seems to have been a groundswell of interest in remembering the dead.  Inspired perhaps by the Vietnam war memorial, nearly every subsequent monument to war or some other tragedy includes a list of names.  Annual celebrations at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier draw ever greater crowds.  In pop culture, the dead are decidedly in fashion: we are fixated on zombies, hauntings, and murder investigations, as any channel surfing will tell you.  In many corners of the church, remembrance of the faithful departed encroaches on All Saints’ Day, when in many parishes the celebrations for that feast include the lighting of candles, the reading of names, the giving of offerings, or some other token for remembering the departed.  Strangely, our society’s haste to remember the dead is accompanied by a parallel, almost cataclysmic drop in the offering of requiems for the departed, and in the celebration of the feast of All Souls.

There are probably lots of reasons for this, but somewhere in the mix I think there is a confusion of categories.  The feast of All Saints holds in special focus what is often called the Church Triumphant: those persons in whom the grace of God is so clearly and powerfully active that they have been brought to glory, and now contemplate “in full light God himself, triune and one, exactly as he is.”  You and I are members of the Church Militant, struggling daily against the powers of sin and darkness.  It is tempting for us to think about all who have died as having instantly received their reward, brought into the full light of God as new members of the Church Triumphant.  Part of this is out of compassion: we want the best things for our departed loved ones.  Part of this is out of self-interest: we want the best things for ourselves.  Part of this is out of fear: we are afraid of death, and of what life looks like beyond it.  Part of this is out of impatience, extending our culture of instant gratification even to the life of the world to come.  But whatever our temptations, this is not always the case.  There is a third category of the Church, by far the largest of the three: that is the Church Expectant, made up of the vast multitude of the dead who die in the Lord.  They rest from their labors on earth.  They await the final victory of the Lamb, when there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and we will all see God.

What does the Church Expectant look like?  What happens when we die?  The honest truth is that none of us knows.  Or at least not with any great specificity or expertise.  Because of our lack of knowledge, we turn to all manner of coping mechanisms.  We can be defiant about death, or live in denial that it will come for us too.  We can be afraid of it, and take refuge in living a life of few risks.  We can be angry, and lash out against our friends and neighbors when death advances too closely.  We can also glorify death, and worship it if we so choose.  All of us, sooner or later, indulge in these and other ways to cope.  Yet none of them helps us to be reconciled to the reality of death; none of them helps us to survey its contours with any greater accuracy.

What is our response?  How does the Church Militant probe the darkness of the grave?  We turn to the Liturgy, to the place where Our Lord’s own death and resurrection are made manifest in our midst.  At funerals, and especially in this solemn requiem for All Souls, we contemplate the promises of God in Scripture, and sing the canticles of the Church.  We let them mold our imaginations, and give shape to our prayers.  We are not shy about our fear of death, our anguish at the loss of loved ones.  We are explicit about our desire for their good, and our hope that our love for them, and theirs for us, will not diminish with death, but rather grow. We name them at the altar, and with their names echoing in our ears and in our hearts, we receive the Sacrament of our Lord’s Body and Blood, our foretaste on earth of triumph in heaven.

Yet even in the Liturgy there is darkness.  In his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict remarks that, while incense is rightly associated with our prayers, with the Eucharistic sacrifice, and with the ongoing worship of God in heaven, it also functions in a darker way.  The cloud of incense obscures our vision.  It confuses our senses.  It reminds us that, while God comes to us in the Sacrament, we do not and cannot yet see him face to face.  It is significant that at mass we have to pass through the rood screen and into the cloud in order to make our communions; today, even more poignantly, we pass by the catafalque on the way.

What am I trying to say?  As this earthly life ebbs into another, as our senses fail and our powers of understanding weaken, as death looms large and makes its presence known in our lives and even in our worship, we are brought to a point where we can have no confidence in our own strength and courage.  All of our coping mechanisms fall short.  Even our fear subsides before the great immensity of death, and we are left with something like powerless astonishment.  When we are brought to such a point as this, we know we can do nothing of our own.  We can only lean on him who said, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the Age.”  And we have to entrust our departed loved ones to his care.

This is not to deny the hope of the resurrection, or to diminish our yearning for that Day when the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised, judgement be given, and we join the angels in the eternal contemplation of the full glory of God.  But it is to say that, just as we make our communions within the cloud of incense, so does Our Lord meet us within the veil of death.  He is a trustworthy guide, and a faithful friend.  He has gone before us, and has marked the way.  He leads our departed loved ones across Death’s plains, through its valleys, and over its peaks.  He will lead us too in the way that we must go, to the place where his Father — our Father — waits above.

In the meantime, while we are still on this earth, we resolve not to run from death.  We see in it the shadowy foreboding of our own mortality, and we hear in it the distant song of the saints.  Above all we pray.  We pray for all the faithful departed.  We carry their names to the altar, we speak them in front of the earthly icon of the heavenly throne, we commend them to the care and keeping of the One who calls all of us out of darkness into his marvelous light.  In our prayer, the Spirit is living and active, binding the whole Church together: Triumphant in heaven, Expectant in death, and Militant here on earth.  In our prayer, we are strengthened for our duties in this life, and we enjoy in spirit that fellowship of unity and peace which on the Last Day we will enjoy face to face.

So let us pray, in Christ’s Name, and for his sake.  So let the living and the dead be forever united, bound together in faith, in hope, and in love.  So may we all, as one Body, come to our eternal rest in the endless splendor of our God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.