Festival of All Saints and All Souls, 2015
Readings: Wisdom 3, 1-9:Psalm 24 1-6; Revelation 21, 1-6a: John 11, 32-44
It’s an odd festival, All Saints and All Souls. It used to be in April, when everything is green and growing, not withering and dying. November is a more obvious, if theologically less satisfactory, metaphor for this festival of the dead, whether the extra special saintly dead in heaven, today, or the ordinary dead, waiting till our prayers shift them from purgatory to heaven, tomorrow. I dislike the difference. Firstly, while there are many saints and people renowned for their goodness and their example in the calendar, there are a number so declared for reasons beyond their kindness, fairness, goodness, faith or courage, reasons which too often serves ruling churches or church-linked rulers. Secondly, and while I speak as a Protestant I have a good many Roman Catholic friends who agree, the idea that the multitude of non-saints squeeze into purgatory, waiting for our prayers to mesh with God’s will, is both unnecessarily complex and vulnerable to abuse.
We live, we die, and all who die in the shelter of God’s wing, touched by God’s love and mercy, go to God: all. How? Exactly where? When? In whose company? I do not know. Some Protestant theologians insist that the soul immediately plays harps in heaven which is…well, wherever we understand heaven is. No, I’m not mocking: but arguing about how many rooms, or who goes, is a shameful playground battle by people whose need for certainty outweighs their humility. We do not know details but we are assured by Jesus, by Paul, by the entire body of the scriptures, and we accept, we trust.
What we do know is that but for Lazarus everyone who died before and during Christ’s lifetime died. Yet already before Jesus, as we heard in Wisdom, the idea was growing that the righteous would be protected by God beyond death, and be at peace, having earnt God’s grace. Sadducees and Pharisees arguments apart, Christ’s death and resurrection redeems all who accept God’s grace, so since Jesus’ death and resurrection, being at peace with God is no longer a matter of clambering up an unending slope of loose shale, earning your place, nor is it only for those who survived the smelter clothed with specks of gold, but for all who accept, and try to follow.
But despite the fact that all will physically die, and despite our trust that we shall be with God when we die, increasingly we keep death away, especially in western Europe, and even where coffins are open at the funeral, the real person becomes a ‘cosmeticed’ pastiche. Instead of the reality that those whose parent, sibling, child or friend will never be seen again on this earth, ‘Always look on the bright side’ has become the commonest funeral song in the UK. Instead of knowing the reality of death, children and young people spend hours killing as many people as possible on computer.
Few see the dead, few know that contrary to the insistence of some churches that the soul leaves the body immediately on death, people who sit with dead friends, dead relatives, know it takes several hours, even a day plus, until the soul has moved. That’s not a checkable fact: but repeated experience, and one I rejoice to have experienced, just as I hope we all recognise the joy of knowing our beloved dead, saints in heaven, are still part of our lives, our memories, our conversation, not a wound up pseudo ‘bright side’ joy, but a precious intimate joy, a memory of closeness to the dead and the living which sharpens the reality of being alive. I spent Trinity Sunday 2000 in Borneo sitting by Maiel, who had just died. I’d known him since 1966, when he’d cut juicy hot pineapples for me and the girl boarders at the mission school who lived with me then. Sitting with him, and talking to him as he lay there under the mosquito net, and talking to some of his grandchildren whom I’d never met: what a joy-filled life-affirming memory, which is probably shared by those of you here who come from places where death is still wisely incorporated into everyday life. Maiel knew he’d die, for his old and late friend Bakri had called him to come to the green rice fields of heaven: he was ready. Both Maiel and Bakri had accepted Christ, and it’s interesting that for those two rice farmers, green fields not harps signified heaven. No one has a franchise on imagery, but while November would make northern hemisphere sense to remember the dead for those not in Christ: but otherwise the green of April seems more appropriate.
Yet not all the dying and the just dead can be accompanied by the living, and some death is horrifying and should be so seen rather than airbrushed away. The accidental death of a 12 year old girl some years ago in the Odenwald was not immediately made better by an ecclesial variation of looking on the bright side by her Rothenberg pastor: ‘we should be happy she is decking the altar of God:’ at that point, for her parents, it was the end. The partner of a friend of mine in Manchester flew to Lesbos last week to help refugees. An hour after he landed, he was cradling a grieving, shivering mother who’d just lost two children to the seas: he rang home that night in floods of tears, and the experience will change his life, and well as the life of that grieving mother. For her too, it is the end, even if she may also know they are with God. To pretend otherwise from an excess of piety, or an assumption God caused the death and so it must be accepted, is unhelpful
How do we manage All Saints, All Souls? We can pick a few ‘big S’ saints and learn from their lives. We can remember those we knew who have died, and keep their memories alive while we live. We can ‘believe in life before death’ as the ad in the UK for Christian Aid neatly puts it in appealing for money for the needy, and do what we can for vulnerable children in our street, our town, and the wider world. ‘Where there is hope there is life,’ is the title of book by a friend of mine which sets out the lives of twelve women in Chicago who live in shelters for the homeless. Where there is hope, there is life: life lived in joy – however brief the flashes of memory – life lived in closeness to other people, perhaps bringing sight to the blind, friendship to the lonely, long-term food security to the hungry, knowledge of God through life-witness not strident voices. In short, there is hope in life lived happily embraced by God for solace, braced by God for action.
Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping