All Souls' Day Sermon - 2 November 2020
Father Damian leads us in remembering before God those whom we loved but see no longer.
‘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.’ John 6: 40
One of the reasons I am so fond of the liturgical seasons that mark out he churches year is the way they reflect what is happening in nature. The start of November in the UK is a time of contrasts and conflicts; a time of change when summer's warmth and winter's chill collide. If we are blessed there are a few golden autumn days when we feel the warmth of the Sun, when the raspberries still ripen and a few late flowers bloom. The next day can and is often quite different with violent winds or an icy blast. Likewise, the calendar of the Church's year follows nature's seasons, so November also begins with two contrasting days, All Saints’ with its themes of victory and holiness all treasured in the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem. Then today is All Souls’ and we could feel back down to earth with a bump, with our hangings changed from Gold to Purple and our hearts recalling the love we have for so many whom we see no longer.
So, we pray for our departed brothers and sisters, as the faithful have done since the earliest days of Christianity. Indeed, early liturgies and inscriptions on catacomb walls, demonstrate that throughout Christian History, prayers have been offered for the departed, even if the Church needed more time to develop a substantial theology behind the practice.
Praying for the souls of the departed is nothing new, for the practise is actually borrowed from Judaism, as indicated in 2 Maccabees 12:41-42: ‘So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; and they turned to supplication, praying that the sin that had been committed (by the deceased) might be wholly blotted out.’
In the New Testament, St Paul prays for his departed friend Onesiphorus in 2 Timothy 1:16-18:
‘May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chain; when he arrived in Rome, he eagerly searched for me and found me —may the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day! And you know very well how much service he rendered in Ephesus.’
Early Christian writers Tertullian and St. Cyprian testify to the regular practice of praying for the souls of the departed. Indeed, Augustine, acknowledged the importance of praying for those we see no longer. Both Paul and later St Augustine, in their lives and ministries demonstrated the truth which underlines today’s remembrance; that Jesus draws heaven and earth together by his self-less death upon the cross, his forgiveness of our failings for all time and eternity and his glorious resurrection to new life. ending the broken relationship between humanity and God and opening to all the hope of heaven. This is the greatest transition in all creation, the overcoming with death by life eternal, meaning that death is no longer the end of the story, that after winter will come spring – new life!
From the cross our Lord taches that death is not the end. To the criminal who asks to be remembered in the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus says, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’ (Luke 23:42, 43) In this time of pandemic we should be especially sure of this promise – that death and darkness are overcome with the bright light of new life.
Jesus also promises the disciples, ‘In my father’s house there are many dwelling places.’ And ‘I am going to prepare a place for you.’ And ‘I will come and take you to myself so that where I am you may be also.’ (John 14: 1-7) And from today’s Gospel reading we have those wonderful words of consolation and hope, ‘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.’ (John 6: 40) As Christians we believe that heaven is the place that Jesus has both promised us and prepared for us. Of course, All the Saints go ahead of us into glory and today on All Souls Day we pray for every day, yet still wonderful people whom we love but see no longer, that they also may be resting in the heavenly kingdom.
The purple reminding us that repentance and renewal, acceptance of our faults and our need to turn to Christ are essential for our salvation. And that prayer for those who go before us is also an important part of our Christian worship and witness. So today, we also pray for each other, here in this place. We pray that in our grief and loneliness, we may know the comfort of the community of the faithful and the power of Jesus to heal, forgive and renew our lives. You see the purpose of the family of faith, the Church, is to support and uphold one another.
Our change in liturgical gear and the purple hangings in this church speak of both penitence, the reconciliation that the everyday saints we have known and loved are not rejoicing in God’s abundant kingdom. The same theme for tonight speaks of our own desire to draw closer to the Lord who promises us peace, in the place he has prepared for us too. So, It is right that today, on this cold November night, we should give thanks for the saints that we have known, that have inspired and challenged us, loved and trusted us, taught and guided us, nurtured and protected us.
We do this in the knowledge that Jesus our Lord longs to take our prayers right into the Fathers heart, as our mediator and advocate and ‘God with us’.
The seasons change and we are heading into the dark of winter. The loss of a loved one, and the yearly remembrance of those whom we love but see no longer mirrors creation’s move into winter. But we also have hope, for we believe that Jesus died for us, and offers us forgiveness and the new life of the Kingdom, the hope of heaven – springing forth.
This is the unique hope of the Christian Faith. Death is not the end, for the Christian there is new life in all its glory and majesty won for us by Jesus. And be in no doubt, that He knows the journey that our loved ones have travelled, and he knows the place which he has prepared for all who trust in him. Amen.
Father Damian Stewart Harrison-Miles, November 2020