On 1st November, today, the Church keeps the Feast of All Saints’ Day. An opportunity to celebrate all the Christian saints, known and unknown. The Roman Catholic Church has a set procedure to follow in order to recognize an individual as a saint, St Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa), St Pope John Paul II, and St John Henry Newman being relatively recent examples. However in the New Testament we are told that all Christians are called to be saints, and so this Feast celebrates not only those Saints officially remembered by the Church but also those known only to God.
On 2nd November, the Church keeps All Souls’ Day, or the Commemoration of All Souls. An opportunity to remember all the faithful departed. This day has been out of favour for many generations but in recent years people have rediscovered the value of the commemoration. Not always called All Soul’s Day services (considered old fashioned and inaccessible) it is common for places of worship including crematoria to reach out to those who have suffered bereavement, especially in the last twelve months, and offer them an opportunity to attend a special act of worship.
Praying for the souls of the departed is largely a Catholic practice, but lighting a candle in memory of a departed loved one is something that many people do, both Christian and non-Christian. The intention of such acts is to support those grieving, to help them to give thanks for what has been, and to bring healing and restoration by trusting in the grace and mercy of God.
Sadly people won’t be able to come together physically this year, but there are many acts of worship and activities offered online, and I will be celebrating Holy Communion remembering by name those who have died in the last twelve months who were connected to my churches or to my ministry. If you would like me to include the name of any of your departed loved ones please let me know and I will be glad to include their name them in the service.
The third day of remembrance is of course the best known, Remembrance Sunday, which falls on 8th November this year. A day on which we gather, as we have done year after year, to remember those whose names are commemorated on our local memorials and Rolls of Honour and across the world. We remember those who died in the two World Wars, the Falklands War, the Gulf Wars, the War on Terror and all who lost their lives in the service of their country. We remember many people, if not all, whom we never knew personally.
We also remember those against whom they fought, so many following orders, helpless pawns in the great game of warfare. Our acts of Remembrance do not glorify the vain glory of man so painfully demonstrated in war and violence, but celebrate the lives of those who were prepared and did give their lives for the sake of peace, liberty and justice. It is right that we commemorate and give thanks for the ultimate sacrifice they made for us, and for those who will come after us. It is a painful reality that in a year’s time, doubtless we will be remembering others who will have lost their lives protecting us today in order to preserve our peace, our liberty and our justice.
Remembering inevitably involves looking to the past, what has already happened, but it does not mean living in the past - we remember in the present, and look forward to the future. Sir Winston Churchill said “A nations that forgets its past has no future.” The same can be said for us as individuals, but how much easier said than done?
We all know people who have suffered terrible loss and continue to grieve years later. Those who have lost loved one during this Covid season have not been able to express and share their grief as we used to. It is a fine and difficult balance over which we appear to have little control, and we never know how we will be affected until we find ourselves in that situation.
Remembrance-tide recognises the importance and value of remembering, and offers support as we acknowledge that remembering the departed is painful, as painful as the sword which pierced the heart of the Virgin Mary as she stood at the foot of Jesus’ Cross. As we remember those known to us, we are encouraged to call to mind the joy shared to counter the bitter sadness of loss; knowing that life is the greatest gift given to each one of us, we are called to give thanks for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.
The Hebrew Bible is rather ambivalent about what happens after the death of the body, but the central message of the Christian faith is that the faithful departed have “sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ” in the words of the funeral service. Trusting in God, Christians take comfort that at some point in the future they will be reunited with their departed loved ones, in a world where “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore” (Rev 21.4).
This is not escapism. It acknowledges the trials which we encounter in this life and places them in the context of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in the context of God’s plan for humanity in which we play our part day by day, as we look back on what has made us who we are today, and strive to discern what is to come to us tomorrow.
This hymn written by Jan Struther (1901-53) is often heard at funerals and speaks of God’s presence with us throughout our journey in this life:
Lord of all hopefulness, Lord of all
Whose trust, ever child-like, no cares could destroy,
Be there at our waking, and give us, we pray,
Your bliss in our hearts, Lord, at the break of the day.
Lord of all eagerness, Lord of all
Whose strong hands were skilled at the plane and the lathe,
Be there at our labours, and give us, we pray,
Your strength in our hearts, Lord, at the noon of the day.
Lord of all kindliness, Lord of all
Your hands swift to welcome, your arms to embrace,
Be there at our homing, and give us, we pray,
Your love in our hearts, Lord, at the eve of the day.
Lord of all gentleness, Lord of all
Whose voice is contentment, whose presence is balm,
Be there at our sleeping, and give us, we pray,
Your peace in our hearts, Lord, at the end of the day.
This prayer was widely publicised during both World Wars but is very much a prayer for each one of us, every day. While it is called the Prayer of St Francis there is no evidence to connect the two, and perhaps the alternative name of the Peace Prayer is more appropriate:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
where there is hatred … let me sow love;
where there is injury … pardon;
where there is discord … unity;
where there is doubt … faith;
where there is error … truth;
where there is despair … hope;
where there is darkness … light;
and where there is sadness … joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled … as to console;
to be understood … as to understand;
to be loved … as to love.
For it is in giving … that we receive,
it is in pardoning … that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying … that we are born to eternal life.