Sermon for All Souls, Sunday, November 05 2017, 7:00 pm
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Wis 3:1-9; Ps 116:1-8; 1 Peter 1:3-9; Jn 6:37-40
If there is one thing that remains a persistent, intractable, often fearful mystery, it is death—the distinguished thing, the inevitable thing, the one thing from which nothing will or can protect us. When we are faced with great and terrifying mysteries, we humans often respond by creating theoretical systems. Some of them may express a part of something true, and some may not, and we have devised many ways of thinking about death, and what happens beyond it; Dante’s precise mapping of hell and heaven, limbo and purgatory, is perhaps the most famous, but there are many others, and many arguments, unresolvable because they touch on things we can never know.
But the sense that somehow, in some inexpressible way, we continue to have a relationship with our dead, is one of the most universal human beliefs, evidenced in some of the earliest known cultures. Traces of flowers have been found in neolithic graves. And in fact, it may not be only a human response—crows and elephants have been seen behaving in ways which suggest that they too sense an ongoing relationship, that they mourn their dead and remember them, and mark that remembrance in concrete ways. Our dead remain with us.
What that relationship is, what it means, has been expressed in different ways. It may be simply a sense that we carry our dead with us in our own selves; not only in our memories of them, but in the ways they have made us into the particular people we are. At the other extreme, it may be belief in ghosts, in reincarnation, in all kinds of things—but it is all that same intuition, that conviction that the relationships we have with others do not end with death. They are gone from us into great mystery; but somehow, somehow or other, they are not gone. We carry our dead through our lives, because something in us requires it. We visit graves, we leave flowers or small rocks. We dream of them, we see them in the street in passing moments of inattention. We have unfinished business with them. We are haunted, if not by ghosts, then by memories of things undone, of possibilities lost. We talk about them, we may talk to them, sometimes. And, in our church, we pray for them, and sometimes we ask them to pray for us.
This, I think, rather than any arguments over details of purgatory or limbo or bodily resurrection or near-death experiences, is at the heart of our theology of death—the belief, the faith, that this somehow continuing relationship is rooted in, and mediated by, our relationship with God. Our dead ones live in God, and as we are within that relationship, we are also with them. For God in Christ has gone down into death, has taken God’s light and love into the heart of that mystery. And so death is filled with, and contained within, God’s eternal and infinite love, that love into which we can also enter, and all times and states, life and death and being and history, are swept up in this love, not indistinguishable, still different, maybe radically different, but held in one movement.
There have been times when this faith, this hope, has been used to downgrade the importance of life now, in these bodies, in this world. That is an entirely non-scriptural attitude, and one which we must avoid; and here, as elsewhere, conscientious and serious atheists have much to teach us. For some, to maintain that this life is all we will ever have or know is to speak a language which respects the importance of what we do now, the choices we make now, the absolute seriousness of this world and this time. And I think that this language is, in a meaningful way, quite true. We will have no other life than this one. Whatever subsisting reality there may be beyond the death of this body, this life is the only life on this earth that I will ever have, and everything in it matters. It is in this life that we create our meaning, and however that meaning does nor does not survive us, that is not trivial. It is a very great truth we need to remember.
And what of those who die far from love? What of the killers, the vicious, the harmful people, those whose relationships in this world have been distorted and sick and damaging? I don’t know, I don’t pretend to know, with any certainty. But I know that they are a part of the body of creation, that this body, which is the body of Christ, is not complete without them. So we pray for them, and we may not be sure what we are doing even, but we pray.
And we name them. We name them as we name those we have loved, and those we have barely known, and those who died before we were born, whose lives touched ours at a distance. We name our dead—we will, in a few moments, name many of the dead of this parish, or connected to members of this parish, and it will be long, but it will matter that the names are spoken. Because their individuality does not disappear. Because love is individual and specific; love is a relation of persons in their extreme particularity, indeed the core of love may be the joyful recognition of the specific, separate, particular being of the other. We do not love generic categories, in life or in death, and neither does God; the God who is three disinct persons in one unity invites each of us too as persons, as specificities, into the divine life.
I do not know exactly what this means, and I cannot swear that what I believe is true, and all our images for this are essentially fancies. Our lives are knitted up with loss, with longing, with silence and broken hope and failure, and death always comes in the middle of the story, before we have said what we needed to say. But we live within mystery, and die into mystery, and I choose to believe that this mystery is, finally, a mystery not of nullity but of love.