Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on All Souls' Day 2014
3 November 2014 at 17:00 pm
The Reverend David Stanton, Canon Treasurer and Almoner
This evening on All Souls' Day, otherwise known as the 'Commemoration of the Faithful Departed', we remember before God all those who have died, and we especially remember those who have died recently.
As a world, we have much to reflect upon. Over recent years the ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria have taken a tremendous toll on the people of those countries. At the very least, 200,000 civilians have so far died violent deaths as a result of war. The actual number of such deaths is no doubt much higher. There are so many people grieving and so many mourning the loss of loved ones.
As a nation we also have much to reflect upon: not least those members of our armed forces who, over the years, have made the ultimate sacrifice. Next Sunday is, of course, Remembrance Sunday. With this in mind, it is worth reflecting for a moment on the poppies outside the Tower of London, and the refurbished Imperial War Museum across the Thames in Southwark; it looks as if we're ushering in a new age of war commemoration. Together they appear to imply a fundamental shift from the solid classical monuments of the twentieth century, to a very twenty-first-century blend of spectacle and reflection.
As individuals, we also have much to consider: I suspect that many of you have a very personal reason for being here: a loved one, a friend, or a colleague who has recently died. Not that long ago I took the funeral for my father, and just like many others who have been through a similar experience, I grieved and mourned. If we are honest, there is so much we don't know about the dead: we don't really know much about their condition. We don't really know how prayer, the offering of the Eucharist, good works, the Christian life, actually help the dead. We struggle to understand how events in the world of the dead (for example like judgement and entering heaven) connect or synchronise with events in our world, whether we are remembering those loved ones who have recently departed this life, or those who died many years ago.
We come tonight feeling all sorts of emotions: perhaps a sense of grief, of despair, of emptiness, of hopelessness, a lack of peace, or even regrets about what could have been. Nevertheless we are reassured by the words of our Old Testament reading: 'The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God'. But if we are brutally honest, what is tragedy for me may be of concern to you and of irrelevance to most others. And beyond our personal deaths stand the death of the world. Indeed, there is a sense in which these echo each other, even though the link is hardly ever expressed precisely because the time-scale can leave us almost thoughtless. Yet remembrance (memory) is not something static, prescriptive, or clearly defined. We each engage with it at a slightly different level and most probably approach it from subtly different angles.
Our worship this evening allows us to focus such diverse remembrance in a particular way and allows us to participate and engage at many different levels. Music is evocative and important because it has the capacity to bring a little transcendence into our ordinary lives. It activates the brain and gives us a sense of being transported out of this world into a state of timelessness. When music is combined with the divine word and shaped by good liturgy, the result is incredibly powerful. It reminds us that the heart of this evening's Requiem is grounded in prayer.
In calling the departed to mind, we reflect upon their need for divine mercy and forgiveness and upon the hope of not being abandoned by God at death but rather asking that divine peace may be given to all departed souls. In this Eucharist the sacrificial death of our Lord Jesus Christ is powerfully represented in and through our liturgy and this brings home to us the dramatic power of death and of its transcendence, day after day, generation after generation. We are further reminded of the fact that although death parts us from those we love, we are still one. We are comforted by the powerful words of Christ: 'This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.'
In this Eucharist we proclaim our hope and our unity with all God's people, living and departed. What we are doing here, in spite of our weaknesses and uncertainties, is what all those who have died in Christ are now doing in endless light, happiness, and peace. Through this Requiem we express our unity with all the departed. The risen Christ gives himself to us as the living bread come down from heaven. This living bread of life is an anticipation of the feast which the Lord is making ready for all his people. In this feast of eternal joy, every tear will be wiped away, all sadness will be overcome, and we shall both see the Lord clearly and experience the full reality of his presence.
Finally, having received our Holy Communion in faith, we shall pray together:
Remember, O Lord, we beseech you, the souls of the departed, both those whom we remember and those whom we remember not. And grant them rest in the land of the living, in the joy of Paradise, from which all pain and grief have fled away, where the light of your countenance shines for ever. And guide in peace the end of our lives, O Lord, when you will and as you will, only without shame and sin; through your only-begotten Son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.