In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
“Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord: and let light perpetual shine upon them. Thou, O God, art praised in Sion, and unto thee shall the vow be performed in Jerusalem: Thou that hearest the prayer, unto thee shall all flesh come. Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them.”
Today is the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed – All Souls’ Day. The day on which Christians remember all who have died in Christ, and in particular, all the dead in Christ whose lives in some way touched our own, those whom we loved, those with whom we had some relationship. And there is no better context within which to do this – to pay this vow –than the mass, spiritual Jerusalem, where the suffering and death of Jesus are shown forth. “Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord: and let light perpetual shine upon them. Thou, O God, art praised in Sion, and unto thee shall the vow be performed in Jerusalem.”
But why is it so appropriate? What makes it meet and right to do this particular thing on this particular day and in this particular way? Praying for the dead is controversial, at best, among Protestants. But the great divine of our tradition, Edward Bouverie Pusey, said this:
“Unless there were, in the word of God, an absolute prohibition of prayer for the departed, how should we go on praying for those whom we love until they were out of sight, and then cease on the instant, as if ‘out of sight, out of mind’ were a Christian duty? How should we not rather follow the soul to the eternal throne, with the apostles’ prayer, ‘the Lord grant that he may find mercy of the Lord in that day’?…. That we have for the time no more to do with those who loved us here, and whom we loved, must be false, because it is so contrary to love. It belongs to the Communion of Saints, that they, in the attainment of certain salvation and incapable of a thought other than according to the mind of God and filled with his love, shall pray and long for us, who are still on the stormy sea of this world, our salvation still unsecured; and that we, on our side, should pray for such things, as God in his goodness wills to bestow upon them.”
That is the best argument, to my mind, for what we are doing here today. Love impels this duty of ours to pray for the dead. Love perdures through death. Indeed it is love that makes death so bitter – love that objects so violently, so seemingly helplessly in the face of death. Paul said, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things,” (1 Cor. 13.7). And the author of the Canticle even says that “Love is as strong as death,” (Canticle 8.6).
Love makes all separations bitter. Consider. The more intensely you love someone, the more bitter is the experience of being separated from your beloved. Yet at the same time it is love that impels your reunion. Think of a husband going to sea. If he loves his wife, and if she loves him, then the separation will be a difficult trial. But were it not for their love, he might never return home.
Death, of course, is a separation deeper than the sea. It removes almost definitively the element of volition – of our will – from the equation. St. Thomas Aquinas said that “to love is to WILL the good of another,” (Summa Theologica I-II,26 4, corp. art.) – to WANT it, to desire it, and to work for it. The problem introduced by death is that no matter how much you might WANT to see your loved one again, you can’t bring about a reunion in the face of death. A greater love is needed.
Someone I loved and from whom I was estranged once sent me a picture of a nativity scene and inscribed on it the question “Would this heal the schism?” The resounding answer must be: Yes! It would indeed! “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him,” (1 John 4.9).
Soren Kierkegaard said: “…the true lover, the sacrificing one, the self-giving and in all things self-renouncing lover, he is, humanly speaking, the injured one, the most injured of all…” To love perfectly is to will the good of the beloved without reciprocity, seeking nothing in return. And it only ever happened once in the history of the cosmos. And so only one man has risen from the dead.
But the good news is that this perfect lover loved perfectly on our behalf. He became “self-giving and in all things self-renouncing,” for you and me. On our behalf the true Lover became “the injured one, the most injured of all.” And he gave us the means of subsuming our otherwise hopeless and imperfect loves in his love. And in so doing, he poured out on us the means of overcoming death, of living such that the schism of death loses its definition, overcome by the superlative love of God in the person of Jesus Christ. The love demonstrated and enacted on the cross heals even the schism of death.
In Christ no separation gets the final word; no separation trumps the power of love. That is what we are about today. Remembering that “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him…” In today’s mass, our love for those from whom we have been separated by the great schism of death is focused on the cross of Jesus, and refracted by the cross into eternity, where it shakes the bars of Hades.
I encourage you today, and indeed at every mass, to offer to God your hopes and loves and aspirations that seem to have been dashed. God knows we all have plenty. Mark’s Gospel says that as Jesus hung on the cross, he “uttered a loud cry, and breathed his last,” (Mark 15.37). Meditate on that last, expiring breath of God’s love in the world, especially in the silent moments enveloping the Bread broken on the altar – the silence of Jesus crucified, echoing through the centuries. Think of the sorrowful mother of Jesus looking helplessly on as her love was mocked and murdered. But meditate on it through the lens of the subsequent, glorious mysteries of our salvation – and preeminently the resurrection of Jesus. Release your bereavements, your dashed hopes and lost loves, to God in union with the dying breath of the Savior. Consign it all to God on the cross. Let God have it all. Only his love could do anything about it. Only his love would heal the schism.
And “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.