Friday, November 2, 2012

All Souls Day -- Homily at Mass

More than twelve years ago, when I first entered this church building, I immediately noticed the various memorials around the walls of the nave. How very English! For the interior walls of cathedrals and parish churches in England are typically plastered with busts and statues, reliefs and inscriptions, extolling the virtues and accomplishments of deceased parishioners.

The erection of monuments is part of a wider pattern of offerings and gifts to memorialize the departed. As in many other parishes, here at S. Stephen’s we have lots of memorials – items given in memory of departed loved ones: from the Webster Memorial Guild House, to the Goddard Organ, to the stain glass windows, to individual Prayer Books and Hymnals in the pews, to flowers on the altar. In the narthex you can see the book in which these memorials are lovingly recorded.

On this All Souls Day, then, it seems appropriate to reflect on this natural human impulse to memorialize the departed. Why do we do it? Such memorial offerings fulfill some deep-seated human needs.

For example, they express the human emotions of sorrow and mourning. Particularly in England, many of the Victorian monuments adorning the churches and graveyards feature weeping angels, winged hourglasses, broken vases, and other symbols of loss and desolation. One gets the impression that such monuments serve to memorialize the grief of the living as much as the memory of the dead.

Such memorial offerings also express thanksgiving for the deceased person’s life. This is particularly true of monuments erected to public figures, such as the Washington Monument and the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials in Washington DC. And here in Church people likewise offer memorial gifts in thanksgiving for the ways in which the departed enriched the lives of family, friends, parish, and community.

Most of all, perhaps, these memorial offerings express the natural human desire to ensure that the deceased person will be remembered and not forgotten. The literal meaning of the word “memorial,” after all, is an aid to memory, a reminder, a stimulus to remembrance: lest we forget. We offer these memorials so that those who them they will remember the ones in whose memory they were given.

Sometimes it works, even for generations: the name of the Webster Memorial Guildhouse still calls to mind the young curate of this parish who drowned at sea in the year 1898. The Waterman Communion vessels still remind us of the fifth rector of this parish who presided over the construction of this church building in the early 1860s.

So, the impulse to offer memorial gifts responds to the human need to express in tangible form our mourning and grief, our gratitude for the life of the deceased, and our desire to keep their memory alive for generations to come. All this is perfectly natural and entirely good. And yet – everything I’ve described so far can be done just as well by atheists and agnostics as by people of faith.

All Souls Day reminds us that as members of the Church we have the opportunity to do something more. In addition to memorializing the dead we also pray for them. This practice hinges on the conviction that even though the departed are no longer with us, nonetheless they are alive in Christ.

The doctrine of the Communion of the Saints teaches us that in Christ we have fellowship with both the living and the dead. Just we pray for each other here on earth, so the saints in heaven pray for us; and both they and we pray for the souls of the faithful departed. We have the assurance that somehow in God’s providence our prayers really do benefit and help the departed in their continuing heavenward journey. And we have the hope that just as we pray for the dead, so too, after our time comes, the members of the Church on earth will pray for us as well.

Bereavement, the loss of a loved one, is a painful ordeal. When someone in our community loses someone, it’s often difficult to know what to say. We want to say something lest it seem that we don’t care; yet I’ve noticed that here in New England especially we’re also reluctant to say anything too intrusive. Our therapeutic culture responds to almost every life event in terms of how we feel about it and how it makes us feel. But people who’ve been recently bereaved often tell me that the last thing they need is well-meaning people prying into how they’re processing their feelings about their loss, or worse, telling them how they must or should be feeling.

The good news is that the Christian tradition gives us a language for speaking of death and bereavement very different from the language of our therapeutic culture. When we encounter someone who’s just lost a loved one, above and beyond such conventional sentiments as “I’m very sorry for your loss,” we can also say something like, “I will pray for her; and I will pray for you as well.” That is not a sanctimonious platitude – provided that we follow through and actually say the prayers that we promise! In my experience, ninety-nine per cent of the time, people are touched, grateful, and even comforted to be told that we’re praying for their departed loved ones, no matter what their religious beliefs or lack thereof may be.

Now, of course, we pray for the departed not so that we can have something comforting to say to the bereaved, but because we believe that such prayers are intrinsically worthwhile. My point is simply that if we take seriously the Church’s teaching and practice on prayer for the departed, we gain a whole new language for responding to death, loss, and bereavement that is clearly counter-cultural, but that can also be remarkably effective in offering solace and comfort as well.

While I’m on the subject, I want to put in a word for the Guild of All Souls: the international Anglican devotional society that prays every day of the year for the departed on the anniversaries of their deaths. By enrolling in the Guild, you ensure that after you die, the Guild’s members will pray for you in perpetuity. And if you want to memorialize someone who has died, one option is to enroll that person in the Guild posthumously, thus adding his or name to the list of those who are prayed for every year on their year’s mind. I cannot think of a more touching memorial.

This evening, then, we gather to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for all the faithful departed. All Souls Day reminds us that as Christians we’re called not only to memorialize the dead, but also to pray for them. And, throughout the year, whenever we encounter a memorial gift given in loving memory of someone departed this life – even something as simple as flowers at the altar – we do well always to remember to say a prayer for that person’s soul.

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