All Souls Day—or, The Commemoration of All Faithful Departed—is a day in the church year when we remember especially those of our brothers and sisters who have departed this life and are with God. As such it is also a day when we are confronted with our own creatureliness, our own mortality, and also with the great hope towards which Christ is bringing us along with those who have died.
Think for a moment of those loved ones whose lives and whose faith in Christ have touched our own lives. I think, for example, of my godparents and paternal grandparents, Frank and Georgie as they were known, who no doubt had a profound impact on my own faith and vocation even (especially!) in ways that I do not know and may never know. Perhaps you are thinking of a parent, or a sibling that died while they were still young, or a very good friend. And here at St. Mary and St. Martha we can’t not think also of Rene, Pearle, Joseph, Bunny, and all those whose names are literally engraved on various plaques around this very building. Today especially, we offer our prayers for these our brothers and sisters now departed. Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them. May they rest in peace, and rise in glory with Christ. Amen.
Recalling the death of our loved ones we are confronted with a perhaps startling reality, that we too shall die. That our life has bounds marked all about by birth and thus also by death. There was a time when we were not and there will come a time when we are not again. And it is part of our vocation as Christians, I believe, to proclaim the reality of death itself (Radner). Memento mori—“remember that you must die”—is not simply a medieval invention but is a central focus of Holy Scripture. For to proclaim death as a central part of our human existence (that we have an ending as we have a beginning) is to be reminded that we are creatures. And if we are creatures then to proclaim this in proclaiming the reality of death is to proclaim God. Apart from death there is no gospel.
In the words of the prayerbook, “In the midst of life we are in death.” In the deaths of our loved ones we come to see our own death before we die. As those who have come to know—or, are coming to know—the reality of our creaturely existence we are taught by Scripture to number our days, in the words of the Psalmist (90:12). Number our days, why? So that we may gain wisdom. And what is wisdom? As the Scriptures proclaim all throughout, it is the fear of the Lord. And what is the fear of the Lord? Is it not to know that our life is not our own, that we exist by divine grace, and that these our gifted lives have a threshold, a limit, death. And that in life as in death we are God’s.
And so we are called to serve God in our own generation. As our loved ones did in theirs and to which their lives bear witness even (especially!) if they do so imperfectly. To fear God is to know who God is—and to know who we are as His creatures—and such fear is articulated in a life that is marked not necessarily by moral perfection but by reverence, a pilgrimage towards God.
And where have our loved ones gone now that they have reached the threshold of their pilgrimage here on earth? We do not know. We do not know where they have gone nor where we will go when we too die. For even though Christians have spoken much about heaven and hell and dreamed up all sorts of images of their reality, the truth is that the threshold of death opens us up to something that must stay hidden from us now and about which we cannot say much (Radner).
“But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God…” (The Wisdom of Solomon 3:1). To be confronted by the reality of the threshold of death is to freely entrust ourselves into the hands of God, or to attempt to withhold ourselves from that which will take us anyway. Whatever the case, it is to enter into a reality that no metaphor can deliver.
And yet the Scriptures attest to another reality that we can know something about. That just here, in death, God Himself has crossed the limits of our creaturely lives from His own side (from eternity) and that having moved toward us in the nothingness of death, “God shares with us the bridge into his own fullness,” (Radner). And where else is this made possible but in the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and coming again of Jesus Christ our Lord? “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day,” (John 6:39). Lose nothing, not even to the nothingness of death, because into this very nothingness Jesus himself entered as he lay in the tomb and through this nothingness he went in the victory of the resurrection.
And it is just here, to the awesome reality of resurrected life, that Christ will bring with and in himself all the faithful departed and we those faithful pilgrims with them: “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).
Their hope is full of immortality (Wisdom 3:4) and it is this very same hope, a living hope, that we have been born into through our baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:3). A hope that Peter tells us is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. That is, not a creaturely hope. A salvation that will be revealed on that last day but which we, along with the faithful departed, are receiving even now in Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:9).
So let us rejoice even as we face various trials in our life, and let us pray for those of our loved ones who have departed this life in faith, and for ourselves as well, that the good work which God did begin in them—and has begun in us—may be perfected unto the day of Jesus Christ.
O God, whose days are without end, and whose mercies cannot be numbered: Make us, we beseech thee, deeply sensible of the shortness and uncertainty of human life; and let thy Holy Spirit lead us in holiness and righteousness, all our days; that, when we shall have served thee in our generation, we may be gathered unto our fathers, having the testimony of a good conscience; in the communion of the Catholic Church; in the confidence of a certain faith; in the comfort of a reasonable, religious, and holy hope; in favour with thee our God, and in perfect charity with all men. Grant this, we beseech thee, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.