Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Like many clergy of all traditions, I accepted an invitation to speak at a Remembrance Day service yesterday. This was out of the city, up in the Gold Coast hinterland in the small but growing town of Upper Coomera. The service was in the open air at the town's war memorial.
Here, as in every city and town throughout Australia, a diverse group of people met to remember those members of our armed forces who laid down their lives in the defence of our country and our allies. Present were veterans and their spouses, children from the local school, representatives of government and the police, and those whose families have lost loved ones on the battlefield (including the family of a young soldier killed in Iraq last year).
It was low-key and slightly understated as such services tend to be in Australia. I was able to speak about the impact of World War 1 on Australian society, and the significance of Armistice Day ninety years ago, reflecting on the paradox that war simultaneously brings out the worst and the best in us, especially the great courage and selflessness for which members of the Australian armed forces have become justly famous. I finished with the observation that it takes no less courage to learn how to forgive and move beyond the differences we have with others, especially when from our point of view they have been clearly in the wrong . . . observing that in Australia after World War 2 many returned soldiers, air force and naval personnel actually led the community at large in building bridges with our former enemies - especially the Japanese. Finally we thought about how the courage to forgive and move on translates into our daily lives if we are to make our local communities worthy of those men and women who paid the ultimate price for our freedom. That's something that each of us needs to keep working on!
I hope you like the painting at the top of this post. It is La Messe en Foret d'Argonne by Henri Gervex (1915).
Sunday, November 2, 2008
This time of the year has a special appeal for me. I love the celebration of Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, where innumerable angels gather to keep festival, where the the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, the spirits of just men made perfect, have assembled before the judge who is God of all, and before Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant. (See Hebrews 12:22-24). That is All Saints' Day, 1st November.
The next day, 2nd November, All Souls' Day, is just as dear to my heart, as we pray for "those whom we love but no longer see" as they grow in God, as their sanctification continues, and as they are healed of the hurts and wounds sustained in this life, all in preparation to gaze on the fulness of the Lord's glory in heaven.
Over a week ago I went to Sydney where my father had died without warning. The funeral and all the other things that had to be done very much focused my attention on the Lord's promise of eternal life, and the fundamental unity of life here and in the hereafter. Of course, there are continuities and discontinuities every time we pass from one phase of life to the next. But the role of a Christian funeral is to proclaim the Good News that the Lord shares his victory over death with all his people, and through thanksgiving and intercession to celebrate our oneness in Christ with those who have died, thus overcoming the sense of discontinuity that death brings.
It was a very strange feeling, then, having arrived back in Brisbane late Friday night, to be at the altar today, offering the early morning All Souls' Day Mass, and mentioning, with the list of other names, both my parents for the very first time. But it was also a fitting way to round off the week.
I want to take this opportunity to say what prayer for the dead is really all about (especially in the light of opposition to such praying among protestants, and even some Anglicans).
I pray for the dead . . .
1. BECAUSE IT IS NATURAL
There really does seem to be an instinct within us to pray for loved ones who have died. In my ministry I have often been surprised at the desire of completely unchurched and secularised people to pause, pray and light a candle for someone they have lost. (If I may say, this gives credence to the idea that the Catholic Faith is the natural religion of humanity . . . in other words, it is all quite normal except for those who have been specifically programmed against it by teachers of other traditions.) So, I NEED to pray for those close to me who have died. It is part of what helps to heal me in times of grief. Did you know that because of this, praying for the departed was the easiest aspect of the Faith to restore to the Church of England in the Catholic Revival, gaining special momentum in the tragic loss of life during World War 1.
2. BECAUSE JESUS DID
Jesus often prayed alone; but he also routinely attended synagogue worship, where prayers for the dead were an integral aspect of what happened. There is not the slightest suggestion in the New Testament that this aspect of prayer should be discontinued. At the time of Jesus there were, in fact, some Jewish people who strongly disapproved of praying for the dead. These were the Saducees. Unlike other schools of thought they didn't believe in resurrection or in angels and spirits. It is interesting that Jesus was extremely direct in his criticism of their errors: "You are wrong because you understand neither the Scriptures nor the power of God" (Matthew 22:29).
3. BECAUSE OF THE DEATH AND RESURRECTION OF JESUS
By his death he destroyed death, and by his rising to life he revealed the resurrection. Jesus showed us that death is not the end. St Paul, writing to a beleaguered, persecuted church in Rome was able to say that therefore NOTHING - not even death - can separate us from the love of Christ. (Romans 8:37 - end) It follows, then, that nothing - not even death - can separate us from those we love in his love. Jesus is the focal point of the gathering of his people. Because we gather around him, the Saints in glory gather around him, and those who have recently died gather around him, we continue our relationship with each other in his love. There is ONE community of faith and love (which we call the "Church"), and the main way we express our love and care for each other is through PRAYER.
4. BECAUSE THE CHURCH HAS ALWAYS PRAYED FOR THE DEAD
Without doubt, the mainstream Jewish practice of praying for departed loved ones uncontroversially continued among the early Christians. The evidence of archaeology - dating back to the first and second centuries - bears witness to this, as does graffiti from the Catacombs in Rome. This is the formative period of Church life, before even the outer limits of the Canon of Scripture had reached their final determination. Couple that with the fact that not one of the ancient liturgies fails to hold the dead before the Lord, and it is clear that to be a Catholic Christian has always meant to express our love for "those whom we love but no longer see" in this particular way.
5. BECAUSE OUR DEPARTED LOVED ONES ARE STILL JOURNEYING MORE DEEPLY INTO GOD
In other words, they are not really DEAD at all! They are still our brothers and sisters in Christ, very much alive in him. And they continue to grow, especially in holiness and love. Speaking to Christians, the writer to the Hebrews says that there is a "holiness without which no man will see the Lord" (Hebrews 12:14). Through faith and baptism we, too, became Christians and embarked on a lifelong journey of sanctification ("becoming holy" or, as some would put it, following St Augustine, "becoming what we are") by co-operating with God's grace, learning more and more to surrender to his will. For the vast majority of us this process is not compete at the point of death.
It is unfortunate that many macabre ideas about the continuing sanctification of our departed loved ones evolved in the middle ages (causing an understandable but tragic over-reaction at the Reformation). This is particularly sad when you consider how brief and restrained is the Catholic Church's official teaching on this matter, certainly not committing us to every detail of the medieval cultus.
Here, for example, are some stunning words from Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) about "purgatory" as encounter with the love of Christ:
"Purgatory is not, as Tertullian thought, some kind of supra-worldly concentration camp where one is forced to undergo punishments in a more or less arbitrary fashion. Rather it is the inwardly necessary process of transformation in which a person becomes capable of Christ, capable of God [i.e., capable of full unity with Christ and God] and thus capable of unity with the whole communion of saints. Simply to look at people with any degree of realism at all is to grasp the necessity of such a process. It does not replace grace by works, but allows the former to achieve its full victory precisely as grace. What actually saves is the full assent of faith. But in most of us, that basic option is buried under a great deal of wood, hay and straw. Only with difficulty can it peer out from behind the latticework of an egoism we are powerless to pull down with our own hands. Man is the recipient of the divine mercy, yet this does not exonerate him from the need to be transformed. Encounter with the Lord is this transformation. It is the fire that burns away our dross and re-forms us to be vessels of eternal joy." (Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, page 229)
So, there you have it: as we journey from this earthly life into complete union with Jesus, his fiery love and holiness cleanses and heals us in preparation for the eternity of God's overwhelming glory.
At every All Souls' Day since my ordination I have seen to it that this wonderful hymn is sung after Communion. It expresses in a perfectly balanced way, the sentiments that should dominate Christian prayer for the departed. A jewel of the Catholic Revival in Anglicanism, it is number 356 in the English Hymnal (tune: Corpus Domini Appendix 47); it was written in Swahili, and translated by E.S. Palmer (1857-1931).
Jesu, Son of Mary,
Fount of life alone,
Here we hail thee present
On thine Altar-throne.
Humbly we adore thee,
Lord of endless might,
In the mystic symbols
Veiled from earthly sight.
Think, O Lord, in mercy
On the souls of those
Who, in faith gone from us,
Now in death repose.
Here 'mid stress and conflict
Toils can never cease;
There, the warfare ended,
Bid them rest in peace.
Often they were wounded
In the deadly strife,
Heal them, good Physician,
With the balm of life.
Every taint of evil,
Frailty and decay,
Good and gracious Saviour,
Cleanse and purge away.
Rest eternal grant them,
After weary fight:
Shed on them the radiance
Of thy heavenly light.
Lead them onward, upward,
To the holy place,
Where thy Saints made perfect
Gaze upon thy face.