Friday, November 6, 2009

All Souls - Ian Boxall

Today is a difficult day for many. The Feast of All Souls invites us to call to mind precious loved ones who are no longer with us, some long gone, others only very recently departed. And that can be a difficult thing. All Souls can be a day which opens up those still raw wounds of loss, as well as evoking feelings of gratitude for those who have been so influential in our lives. It reminds us that the process of bereavement is not at all straightforward or predictable, nor necessarily something short-lived. But lest we are in danger of reducing All Souls Day to an occasion for family reminiscence and grief, however real that that may be, we need to remind ourselves that today’s celebration is worked out on a far bigger canvas. What we are acknowledging today, above all, is that there are countless millions of the departed who are no longer remembered by name, still less by face, and yet whom the Church gathers up in prayer on this particular day. Millions who have gone before, whose faith is known to God alone, and who we assist through our prayers and our sacrifices and especially through our celebration of Mass.

A few months after my father died, a friend recommended that I read C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, a book Lewis wrote as he struggled to come to terms with the death of his wife Joy. It is not a book which works for every bereaved person, but it worked for me. At one point relatively early in his book, Lewis makes the following observation about his memory of his wife:

I have no photograph of her that’s any good. I cannot even see her face distinctly in my imagination. Yet the odd face of some stranger seen in a crowd this morning may come before me in vivid perfection the moment I close my eyes tonight (C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed [London: Faber and Faber, 1966], p. 15).

What is most shocking to Lewis is his inability to remember his wife’s face, that most recognizable facet of the human person. She has slipped away from him bodily, and now she appears in danger of slipping away visually. What we are doing tonight, however, is rooted in the conviction that our dead do not slip away. We are acknowledging that God remembers, that God does not let go, and that even if the faithful departed are far from our minds and we struggle to recall their faces, their personalities, even their names, God remembers them. God sees them. God holds them.

Yet to many in our society, our commemoration this evening is a meaningless exercise, or worse than that a massive delusion. This is where our first reading from the Book of Wisdom is so helpfully contemporary in its freshness and its insights, and particularly as we ponder the faithful departed in that interim state of discipline, purification and transformation.

The opening chapters of the Book of Wisdom juxtapose for us two irreconcilable world views. On the one hand, there is the view espoused by those the author of Wisdom calls ‘the ungodly’. For them, life is not only short and sorrowful, but utterly meaningless. These are the people who say: ‘For we were born by mere chance, and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been’ (Wisdom 2:2). In such a world-view, physical death means the destruction of the body and the dissolution of the spirit. Worse than that, it means that any memory of our existence will eventually be erased from this earth: ‘Our name will be forgotten in time, and no one will remember our works; our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud, and be scattered like mist that is chased by the rays of the sun …’ (Wisdom 2:4). So what this world has to offer is all that there is, and it has to be grasped at (2:6) rather than received as a gift, with no concern for its consequences, because there is no final judgement.

On the other hand, there is the world-view of ‘the righteous one’, who faces ridicule and worse for his misguided beliefs. In this alternative description of reality, death does not mean the ultimate disintegration of our personhood, still less the forgetting of our name or our deeds. Nor is death the punishment it might appear to be to others. Rather, even in death, and beyond death, reality is sustained by the one whose remembering alone matters: ‘But the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seem to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace’ (Wisdom 3:1-3, italics mine).

So today, on this Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, we remember; but more importantly, we celebrate the fact that God remembers, and holds the souls of the righteous in his hands. Or to put it another way, we celebrate the fact that God loves, and that the divine bonds of love are far stronger than those human bonds of love which cause us to remember our loved ones. Which brings us to our gospel for today. Our gospel passage is part of Jesus’ discourse on the Bread of Life, which follows on from the feeding of the five thousand. At the end of that miracle, Jesus had commanded his disciples to gather up all the fragments of uneaten bread and fish, ‘so that nothing may be lost’ (John 6:12). Those scraps which might otherwise be trampled underfoot, or left on the ground to rot, are carefully and purposefully preserved. So now, as Jesus interprets that feeding miracle in his sermon, he recalls that gathering up of the fragments. ‘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).

Of course, it is possible to place a minimalist interpretation on our gospel. Those whom the Father has given the Son, we might argue, are a very select group. Yet there is a strand running throughout John which urges a more optimistic reading. It is rooted in that fundamental conviction that God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should have eternal life. It is possible to reject this gift, to prefer the security of the darkness to the vulnerability of the light. But the divine yearning for the gathering up of the fragments remains. God desires to gather. God desires to hold the souls of the righteous in his hand. But that is only the next stage in the journey. Ultimately, God to desires to raise us up on the last day. That is what we are praying for tonight.