November 2nd, 2013
All Souls Day: Commemoration of All Faithful Departed
As some of you know I teach freshman composition at the university here in town. Generally my task is to educate my students not only in how to write a proper, formal English sentence but also in how to build a stable argument. The class is structured so that students talk about issues in their lives as students and then, through that discourse, come to a topic for their essays. The conversation is usually interesting and I’m learning a lot about their generation. Lately we have been discussing art and culture, their interaction with the artist and with history. Most of the discussion has been explorative and thoughtful, but this past week I was startled when a student of mine claimed that there was no reason to conserve a dying culture. His argument was that if something is dying then we should let it die, let it fade from the mind and consciousness of our culture. What is dead indeed must die, he said, and be forgotten, and thus is the only way for us to move forward into a future.
This was an odd sentiment to hear as someone trained in and in love with medieval literature, but also for a Christian, and specifically while working this week on this present sermon. For on this day we are asked to look back, not only on those departed but on the tradition itself. The Commemoration of All Faithful Departed was only codified as an official day following the introduction of the 1979 prayer book, but was done so because the feast of All Souls or All Saints was, according to an opinion that began during the Anglo-Catholic movement, focused too much on what colloquially we call ‘saints’ – heroes of legend and the past like St. George and St. Patrick – and not enough on ‘saints’ with a small ‘s’ – those little people whose only claim to fame is that they lived lives of dedicated faith, who kept their eyes on God through suffering and through joy, and who are recalled only when we open up a photo album, find a lost, dusty possession in the garage, or whose letters we have in a shoebox in the hallway closet. The wisdom they have given us is not that of high romance or liturgical calendar days, but in memories of family history, old jokes and tales to grandkids.
But again I recall my student, and I wonder if he would say “But who cares about them? All that is finished. Those people are dead and gone. How they lived is lost to us. We have no reason to remember.” How would I answer him? In the classroom I used rhetoric and tried to find a weak-point in his argumentation, but if I could tell myself then all the reflection that I have had since, I would perhaps merely give him a memory of my own: for I have taken part in a similar festival as this before, though it was in Japan, not the U.S. There they have a festival called Obon masturi in which, for a short time, the dead are thought to come back to this world to visit the living. There are dances, parades, and street fairs – as well as many private observances in the home that I as a traveler could only read about, not see.– but my favorite part of the celebration was the lighting of the mountains, and Daimonji Yama the greatest of these. In Kyoto, the ancient capital, the surrounding mountains are carved in the shape of huge kanji – large written Japanese character – single letters that stand for entire words – and, after dark, lit aflame. The idea is that the light helps the spirits find their way back to earth. And in a country that claims to be around 30% atheist this is an amazing thing, for it seems that all of Kyoto had come out to watch. And the mountains shone, like sparks through the reeds, and the people around me were quiet and still – for ten brief moments the city held its breath before again they returned to dance and eat and then sleep once more.
Witnessing this festival showed me that there is still some draw, some love, some hope for that which is gone, even in those countries and among those people who believe themselves free of the past. For what I saw there was that they observed together – and although we may doubt and wonder whether or not the ghosts of the past truly did come at the lighting of Daimonji Yama, still those people witnessed and prayed to those then gone. And their prayers were an echo of the year before, and those of the year before that – the same as ten years ago and twenty, and back to when their parents gazed upon the flaming mount, and further still. And though the details may have been different, or the form changed by time, still was there company, community, not only with those beside them but with those who stood on that exact spot with the same hope in ages past.
As so too we here – for we are not recalling the memory of those faithful departed on the days of their own individual passing, nor singularly within the confines of closed doors or clasped hearts, but together we come to give witness to their lives – at once, as one, in community, in communion. For indeed a day such as this assumes a different measure of time, where the past, like those who have passed, cannot be simply escaped from, cut off from the present by some decisive, temporal axe, nor too as fuel for the future, a mere cog in the wheel of progress, a warning or a justification. But in these, present moments – on this day and indeed in all moments of prayer – it is the belief that the boundaries between the past and present are thrown down, and we – in the active, living moment that Brent so often preaches on – may pray for the good of those departed.
Yet in any discourse there are multiple directions of communication, and perhaps, when we sit in love and hope for those and that which is passed, some of the wisdom from having departed faithful may shine forth – not from our need of it but from its own power to have glimpsed Heaven above – to have seen the glory of God by means of that glory itself. For these things – the people and the past – don’t die, don’t fade to dust if we don’t give words to them – they have strength and power for they themselves were moments lived, where faith was tempered, tested and thrived in the beauty of Christ our Lord. This is the renewal of remembrance, the healing potential of memory, to recall that we should not just remember the past and those who we have lost, nor to simply respect them because they lived troubled lives, but to add to our lives the experiences they had, their troubles and joys and sorrows, almost to the last darkness – to light our own faltering candles on the flame of the Lord which they bear.
And in all this do we recall that the faith they bore as the faithful departed is not in never doubting, but in facing and living through that dark night of despair and knowing that joy and hope are stronger than any moment of terror or doubt, even when the years lay heavy and thick. In each moment we have the strength to renew, to renew within a single moment ever caught with every other moment – yet importantly never, ever alone – for beyond the walls of time stands Christ, and Past and Present are nothing to him.
It may indeed be said with courage that the faith in our prayers for the departed this night is built upon our faith in the workings of Christ and his passion over death. For his death was a triumph, so that the mystery of our own triumph over death, for all of us, from the past to the future, may be a living, breathing reality – the great eucatastrophe of the life of the soul, the blessed surprise that death is not an end, but only a new beginning. And so too that we may have faith – faith in life after death, faith in life in death, that the road to that blessed realm beyond is paved, if not in pure and open joy then at least free from the stones of despair. And on this day we renew the memory that we need not do this alone – there is our open communion, there are those who have departed, and there is Christ, and all are praying – now, in this pregnant moment, and all other moments that have ever been in time – for indeed all of history reminds us to pray, and hope, for peace and faith.