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Worship at the Abbey

Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on All Soul's Day: Monday 2 November

2 November 2009 at 17:00 pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Yesterday, on All Saints’ Day, we were invited to glimpse the glory of heaven. We could see the saints and angels around the throne of God, joining the everlasting worship with great joy: “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God of hosts, who was and is and is to come.”

Today on All Souls’ Day we confront the reality of the death of those we love and peer into the darkness of our own death. As we confront that reality, we are conscious of the anguish of loss, the bitter absence of people we hold dear, the dragging agony of finding our own way without the love of people on whom we have relied. In the darkness is our own uncertainty, anxiety, fear even, as we face the inevitable reality of our own death. How shall we die? Will it be slow or sudden? Shall we be alone, frightened, cut down, or shall we be surrounded by those we love and reassured by the prayers and sacraments of the Church? And how long have we to live? And when we have died, what then? This darkness is impenetrable. We cannot see. We cannot know. One thing we know: we shall die. We must live with the darkness, the uncertainty.

There is a famous poem by Henry Scott Holland who was a Canon of St Paul’s and who died in 1918. It begins: “Death is nothing at all, I have only slipped away into the next room. I am I, and you are you; whatever we were to each other, that we still are. Call me by my old familiar name.” I understand what he means. On the other hand, death is a greater reality than he suggests. Death is not nothing at all. It might be the answer to prayer at the end of a long life but death can be devastating.

I have just read a memoir published in 1973, three years after his sudden death in a road accident at the age of 61, written by John Raynor, the son of a former Master of the King’s Scholars at Westminster School. In his book, A Westminster Childhood, he recounts the death in the last year of the First World War of his older brother Harold at the age of 19. He writes thus, “I like to think of what, in later years, my mother told me about my brother’s passing. ‘At the moment of his death he smiled, a smile of pure recognition. He had seen someone on the other side whom he knew and loved; and who was waiting here especially, to welcome him.’” John Raynor goes on, “There lies in this simple statement a faith that has power to mitigate what each one of us dreads: the awful passage between the two worlds; the moment when we will have to relinquish our humanity and prepare, in nakedness of spirit and soul, to meet our God.” John Raynor recalls that “Harold’s death was a blow from which my father never really recovered. It aged him prematurely and quietly embittered his life.”

Death is not nothing at all. But in the darkness we are not without consolation, not without hope. Even the author of the Lamentations, in the passage we heard for our first lesson recognised, “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” [Lamentations 3: 22, 23] And St Peter in today’s epistle assures his hearers that the persecution they are suffering in this life is as nothing compared with the rejoicing that comes from the knowledge that God has “given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.” [I Peter 1: 3, 4] The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead gives us who believe hope that even death cannot defeat us. St Paul tells us that those baptised as Christians have already died and are now living the new life in Christ: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” [Romans 6: 3, 4]

Even so, one day we shall all die. We may hope that the death and resurrection of the Lord is sure to offer us a place in heaven. But we must know that nothing is more likely to make that hope uncertain than our taking it for granted. So we must pray that when we pass through the veil and gateway of death we shall be welcomed into the eternal glory of heaven. In the meantime, we must prepare to die. The Emperor Constantine when he became a Christian decided to be baptised on his deathbed. An emperor had to make hard choices and do terrible things. His baptism, he believed, would release him from the pain of his sin. The uncertainty of release from post-baptismal sin has exercised many a Christian over the centuries. We may hope and pray that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ will be merciful but we must never forget that God is our judge. Bishop Thomas Ken in the verses known to us as the hymn Awake my soul advises us to prepare for the great day by living each day as if it is our last day.

May the prayers of the Church surround us in death, as we surround tonight with our prayers and love all who have gone before us marked with the sign of the cross and who now sleep in Christ. Rest eternal grant unto them O Lord and let light perpetual shine upon them. May they rest in peace and rise in glory!

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