All Souls' Day

So I had the privilege again last night of preaching at the Paulist Center, for our All Souls Vespers Service. A day late and likely more than a dollar short, here's what I said:

The first thing I have to say is that I want to talk about death, but that I need to admit my utter lack of credentials to speak about it. I am a young man; my parents are still living, my friends and close family are still living – the great danger of my saying anything at all about death is that I’ll start off into heady abstractions, at best, or pious, unhelpful, uncomforting fluff at worst.

I do know a little bit about the Gospel, so that’s what I’ll be going on here, but I beg your forgiveness if what I have to say seems to float away from reality.

What is it with Catholics and death? Why is it that my family could refer to the obituaries as the “Irish sports page”? That my parish held its annual summer picnic in the adjacent cemetery without anyone batting an eye? That our Mexican sisters and brothers are celebrating today as el día de los muertos, full of decorated skeletons and, again, picnics in the cemeteries? Don’t we Catholics know that death is something really, really bad, something to be afraid of, something to struggle against, something to hide away, not something to joke about?

One of the worst things we Catholics can do to undermine faith in God is to ignore the reality, the uncompromising reality, of death in our lives and in the lives of those around us. The more I talk to people who can’t stand to be around Christians, the more I’m convinced of the immense harm that has been done by pollyannish platitudes about “God’s mysterious plan”, by attempting to gloss over the deep pain of loss with a cheerful recommendation to “buck up” and “have faith”, by the quite frankly crappy theologies of death as an instrument of divine intervention in which we’re told that “God never gives us more than we can handle”. God doesn’t “need another angel” – he already has plenty. And God is not consulting a list of “naughty” and “nice” to determine whom he’s going to whack next.

You’ll be happy to know that, in my opinion, these simply aren’t part of the Christian understanding of death. In case we forget, there’s a torture victim hanging in the front of our churches to show us again and again that death – in all its gruesome details, in its violence and despair in so many parts of our world, in the emptinesses which it leaves behind – is not something God wants. Like all of the results of evil in our world, all of the results of sin, death – or at least death as we cause, suffer, and experience it – is a mystery, a mystery the Gospel tells us we only begin to understand in part as we are being saved from death in Jesus.

But how does that happen? Our reading tonight gives us a starting point. Paul writes that he is convinced that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of Christ.” There’s our clue: “nor any other creature”. Do you see what category death falls into? God or not-God? Not God. Creator or creature? Creature.

Now, you see why my warning about being flippant about death comes into play was important; thinking of death as a “creature” can, and has, been read as legitimating exactly the sort of “death as how God micromanages the world” theology that tries to dismiss or ignore the painful reality of death. But I don’t think that is what Paul is up to here.

Instead, Paul is pointing out how, all appearances to the contrary, the things that seem most frightening to us, most threatening to us, including death itself, have no power, no chance of winning, no hold over us when compared to the love of God in Christ. The heights and depths which define our space, the future and present which define our time, the principalities and powers which define how our world works, even life and death itself – these are not even in the running when compared with God’s love. They are not God, they are creatures, and therefore, they aren’t in charge. God isn’t in competition in any way with death, and despite its apparent finality, death isn’t finally in charge. The resurrection of Christ, the “first fruits” of the bodily resurrection, is the real end for us and all the souls now asleep in Christ.

Every Sunday when we gather for Eucharist, we remember how in Jesus God entered into both parts of this complex relationship with death; how dying on the cross he cried out with the pain we know of death, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me”; and yet how he died commending his spirit into God’s hands in love for God and for us. Paul knows that denying the reality of death would by lying about what it is to be a human being, for whom death is scary and painful in ways those words don’t begin to describe. But Paul also knows that it was because Christ trusted in God’s power over death that he was able to risk is life in an act of love for us. Every Sunday we make Christ’s act of love and of trust our own, we begin to see what life beyond – not without – death, looks like: it looks like the love of one who lays down her life for a friend.

So, this may all be well and good, but what does this have to do with our celebration of All Souls, with the picnics in the cemetery and all that?
Only this: I think that our prayer with and for our dead sisters and brothers awaiting, with us, the final resurrection of all, is one of the major ways we remind ourselves of the creatureliness of death, the relative – I use the term very cautiously – unimportance of death, of the fact that while death is often the deepest crisis of our personal and communal lives, it still falls into the category of “not God.” When we pray with and for our dead in a Christian way, we aren’t doing so with a vague hope that they may be ok “somewhere out there”; we’re reminding ourselves that not even death, the painful and tragic deaths that some of us have experienced, can separate them, or us, from the love of Christ. We’re getting into the habits of people for whom God is in charge of everything, even death, and who will raise us up on the last day, as Jesus was raised on the first day of the week. That’s why the practices, the habits, of living as if death were not – the relationships we continue through prayer, the remembrance of our dead brothers and sisters in our lives, even the picnics and the flowers – are far more important over a lifetime of faith than anything I can say to make this unbelievably good news real.

Habits of faith in God can be dangerous – faith in God’s power over death inevitably seems to flower into risky acts of love. Look up above this altar; look at the alcove for the martyrs of El Salvador, and you’ll see what believing love is stronger than death can lead to. But when we pray for and with our sisters and brothers “who have fallen asleep in Christ”, when we use those words not to hide their deaths in a euphemism but to claim God’s power over their deaths, we begin to be freed ourselves from the habits that scare us away from living lives of love. And today on this feast of all the souls, we can be comforted in practicing our faith, in loving as if death were not, by the presence of our sisters and brothers, alive in Christ, encouraging us to imagine our lives through and beyond our deaths.

1 comment:

Fr. B said...

This is beautifully written and profound. Thank you for posting it. Wish I had preached it on All Souls Day in my parish. Thanks.

Fr. B