A reflection for All Souls

Delivered by Michael Fullagar on 3rd Nov 2014 at St Marys.

 

Many days were considered for All Souls Day. We are keeping it a day later than is usual, since All Souls cannot fall on a Sunday, the Day of the Resurrection. The date, November 2nd, began to prevail in about the year 1000. It was accepted throughout the Western Church by the Thirteenth Century, being encouraged by the Benedictines. Of course, we do remember on Easter Eve, Holy Saturday, how Jesus preached to the Departed when he descended into Hades, as we affirm in the Creed. But there is so much to commemorate in Holy Week and Easter that days like All Souls and Corpus Christi help us to consider them at leisure.  I once had to lead a pilgrimage when the priest leader died in Turkey. We  said a Requiem for him over the border in a Greek Orthodox Church, which seemed appropriate, as we were a very mixed group; Anglican, Roman Catholic and Reformed. His brother asked us to suggest a text he might put on the headstone in England. We suggested Wisdom 3.1. ‘But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. They are at peace. Their hope is full of immortality.’ 

 

The life we now live in Christ is part of life which is eternal. The fellowship we have with him unites us with the whole Church in earth and heaven. We experience that most vividly in the Eucharist. We pray that, as we journey through the years, we may know joys without end, and at last come to the abiding city where God reigns for ever and ever.

 

I once quoted in a sermon  Monsignor Ronnie Knox who said that we are divided into All Saints, All Souls and All Sorts. With reference to All Sorts, I suggested that we who comprise the latter are like that confectionery which I doubted still existed. The following week a retired major who had been in the congregation presented me with a large packet of Bassett’s Liquorice All Sorts! That same man was soon to join the former grouping of all Souls, when he asked me to be with him at his death bed. There, after unburdening himself, for that gentle friend had suffered much in this life, he gave up his spirit and entered into eternal rest.

 

There are those who are comforted by Canon Scott Holland’s sermon, ‘Death is nothing at all’. Some say that the passage was taken out of context, but I should not like to think that those who find it helpful are mistaken. We are all different. At the end of a long life, many are content to let go and let God. However, when people die young, or diseased, or killed or self-harmed, either through suicide or abuse, we may agree with the manager of a bookshop in Oxford, who said to me angrily that Death in no way is nothing at all. We can then rage against death, as Dylan Thomas did, who shares a centenary this year with his friend from college days, our former much-loved incumbent, Donald Carpenter. Dylan died from over-imbibing, but his rich voice, sounding to me like prunes pickled in gin, still impinges upon us:-

‘Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rage at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lighting they

Do not go gentle into that good night’.

 

With loss we weep or rage, even against God, for he can take it. We ask in the words of the Prayer Book Litany, ‘From sudden death, Good Lord, deliver us’.As a Hospital Chaplain, I have known a drug addict with HIV/AIDS almost die in my arms. I, in my grief, have felt both angry and sorrowful with those who supplied that deadly narcotic food and also with him who was foolish enough to feast on it, to the lasting grief of his widow and orphans. Still, he died,penitent and believing,and I was privileged to be asked to officiate at his funeral. More happily,but no less movingly, I have been with a widower, bereaved after 60-plus years of marriage. He spoke lovingly of his wife. Every time she was mentioned, he kissed her wedding ring, now safe on his fingers.

 

Death cannot be denied. It is at the heart of our faith. ‘When the soldiers came to Jesus, they saw that he was already dead’. He had given up the ghost. He had handed over his Spirit to you and me. As Easter People, we proclaim, in the words of another poem by Dylan Thomas, that Death shall have no dominion. Crazy, mixed-up poet, though we might name him, in the end Dylan leads us to Saint Paul and his letter to the Romans; - ‘But, if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin once: but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you must consider yourselves dead to sin, and alive to God in Christ Jesus’. Amen.

 

At the back of the Church you may wish to read further the passage from Canon Scott Holland's sermon to which I referred and also the two poems by Dylan Thomas from which I quoted.


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