Sunday 30th October 2016, All Souls Day, evening
by Revd Chris Palmer
Grief is unpleasant. But we wouldn’t be without it. Because grief is a natural expression of love – and we wouldn’t be without love. There’s only one way to avoid grief, and that is never to love.
Of course, grief is unpredictable. Sometimes it’s feeling numb, or it’s intense sadness, or it’s anger, or feeling guilty, or feeling life is pointless; sometimes grief comes with tears and sometimes not; sometimes it includes relief, especially if death has been long or difficult; sometimes grief is luminous, as it radiates gladness and gratitude for the person who’s died. But often it’s not like that, as in the first reading:
“my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is;
so I say, ‘Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.’
The thought of my affliction and homelessness is wormwood and gall
My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.”
Sometimes we have companions in our grief, as when one loved by many has died. And sometimes our grief is lonely, as when a child has died in the womb and others didn’t even know, or when it was a pet and others don’t understand how much it meant. And sometimes it’s not death in the literal sense at all. The grief in the book of Lamentations is at the sight of Jerusalem burnt to the ground after an unforgiving siege. Or we can grieve at never having conceived a child, or at losing a relationship through separation, or at the loss of a home we loved.
Grief is the appropriate emotional response to many losses. The question is not how do we avoid grief, but how do we ensure grief doesn’t destroy us. How can we honour those we loved and lost without being wholly consumed by our sorrow?
One very common answer to that question is by remembering the good and choosing to celebrate. This answer has become the dominant answer in our culture in recent times. Almost every funeral I take comes with the desire that it would be a celebration of the person’s life. This chimes with the Christian call to gratitude, to acknowledge that our loving relationships are a gift from God. Choosing gratitude, even when we don’t feel like it, can be a startlingly powerful path through pain and suffering.
But funerals as a celebration of a person’s life are essentially a modern phenomenon. Through most of Christian history, in most churches, funerals have been about commending the dead person to God, so that the promises of resurrection and life will be fulfilled in them. That’s also what All Souls’ Day has traditionally meant. As the funeral service says,
“in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life
through our Lord Jesus Christ,
who will transform our frail bodies
that they may be conformed to his glorious body…"
In the Salvation Army they say, ‘promoted to glory’ – which has more of the soundbite about it, but says much the same thing. The dead are not dead at all; they live with God; and the life they live with God is ablaze with the splendour and joy of the risen Christ. Or, as St Paul says, with ‘an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.’
There can be problems with this, however. One rather immature version of Christianity say that because we belief in this resurrection life, we shouldn’t be sad at all, but merely celebrate: they’ve got the real life, and mourning looks like a lack of faith in God’s promises.
The problem, of course, is that this doesn’t do justice to the reality of our loss, or our experience of death. Death does tear relationships apart, robs us of companionship and intimacy, and carries away those we loved having around. And for these reasons, grief is natural and normal. Faith in God does not negate grief.
The reverse is also true. Grief does not negate faith. That is to say, we are not bound to believe that, because our loved one has died and we feel deeply sorrowful, God has abandoned us, no longer loves us, or doesn’t exist. Because that does not do justice the faith, to the experience of many people that, in the most traumatic and grief-stricken moments of life, they have a deep sense of being held, or being carried, or being consoled – which is mystical in its quality, and all the more real for it.
In other words, grief and faith are not in opposition. Rather they are mutually enriching.
So grief and loss can become the place where we learn to rely on God, where faith blossoms. It’s been an oft-repeated truism that we grow through adversity, that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. And what I’m saying is a bit like that. But with this important difference: grief is not only the place to discover that we can be strong, but to trust that God is strong even when we’re not. This is the wonderful thing about faith, it springs from the place of uncontrollable loss – we can do nothing – and so pushes us beyond our own resources, which most of us try to live by most of the time, onto the patient, ever-waiting, outstretched arms of God. Faith comes not from trying, but from not trying to do it all ourselves. We allow ourselves to be in God’s arms and discover that we are held.
Back to that first reading. And the writer says this at the point she or he is lowest,
“This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
Grief is the place where faith blossoms.
And faith is the place where our love for people who’ve died deepens into communion. The other face of All Souls’ Day is All Saints’ Day, when we celebrate the communion of saints – our fellowship with those who’ve gone before us and now live the life of glory. The communion of saints is the sense that our relationship with them is still real and alive – that in God there is connectedness that unites us across the boundary of death.
Our temptation is to want to interpret the communion of saints as them still hanging about with us on earth; they come and visit from time to time. And I’ve got nothing against still standing in your kitchen and nattering to your wife or husband or mum or dad who’ve died. But I think that the point of the communion of saints isn’t that they are hanging around still with us, but that we’re already kind of hanging around with them in heaven.
We’re talking in the realms of pictures and symbols here, of course. But that’s what the Eucharist says:
“with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven,
we proclaim your great and glorious name...”
The food on the altar is the bread of heaven and food of angels.
God invites us already into the life of glory right now, to be with the saints, with our departed loved ones, with every creature that God loved – that we lost and he found. And, yes, our experience of heaven and glory now are very hazy and unclear. But by patiently choosing that place, desiring that fellowship, making time for God in prayer, our grief becomes ‘love found’ as much as ‘love lost’.
Faith is the place where grief blossoms.
So may God hold us in his arms,
as he holds our loved ones departed in his presence,
and may God open our hearts to our communion with the saints,
who are full of the joy and glory of God.