Monday, 3 November 2014

All Souls 2014

From the glorious gold of All Saints we have moved to the sombre black of All Souls, and unusually, we have done it all in one day. All Saints really falls of the first of November, so if we were being traditional, we would have kept it yesterday, and just All Souls today, but as you can see from tonight's liturgy, here at St Peter's we're very modern and progressive; so, we moved All Saints to this morning for the whole parish to enjoy. But there is something surprisingly fitting about marking both on the same day. All Saints are, after all, pretty much the same thing: the difference is that while All Saints glories in the memory of the saints known and celebrated throughout the worldwide Church, All Souls marks the more recently and more locally departed, the dead we know and love in person. It's essentially a more local and familiar version of All Saints. 

So why, you might ask, the difference in tone - why the gold for All Saints and the black for All Souls? Well, I can think of two answers to this. One is pastoral, and the other is theological, but they are both very much connected. 

The pastoral reason is simply a matter of emotional honesty. We can be cheery about the universal saints of yesteryear and celebrate our communion with them in gold vestments and joyful songs, but when it's our own friends and family, it's different. The fact is, death is not something we naturally celebrate. A common modern position is that our loved ones are gone, so there's no point making a fuss about it, and we should all just cheer up and celebrate the good things in their lives. I think this comes from the historic Protestant viewpoint that once the dead are dead, God has made his mind up about them, so there's no point in praying for them: just let them and Him get on with it. As a result, instead of acknowledging our grief, we try to cheer ourselves up, and we do the same to other people, too: though I wonder, when we do that, are we really trying to help them or just take away the awkwardness that we feel ourselves? As an aside, I think the current obsession that is developing with Hallowe'en and zombies has something to do with the utter inadequacy of our culture to confront the reality of death. The Church, and this Requiem, does not make death go away, does not brush it under the carpet. It is realistic. It offers a place to grieve, in all honesty, and people who won't try to cheer you up or change the subject, but will be with you in your grief. 

And so onto the theological reason why All Souls is not a celebration, as such: and that is that death is not part of God's plan. Some deaths are better than others, certainly, but death in itself is never good. It is the very opposite of the eternal life for which God made us. The theological rationale is that death is the result of the Fall, the sinful condition of a world separated from God. But therein lies the hope, too, because God's response to our fallenness is to send His only Son to suffer just as we do, to die just as we do, and rising again to ascend to heaven and so lift up our humanity to join in his divinity. 

We wear black today and join in solemn ritual because we cannot celebrate death; but we can join the beloved dead in Communion at the heavenly altar where they now feast and worship, and so celebrate with them the joy of the Resurrection which we can know only in part, but they know far better than we. We pray for them as they pray for us, weep for them as they weep for us, and even as we weep, rejoice with them through the tears as they rejoice for us. 

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