“The souls of the righteous are in the
hand of God...”
All Faithful Departed
St. Mark’s Church
November 3, 2008
1 Cor. 15:50-58
In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Yesterday we celebrated All Saints’ Day with festival hymns and banners, and great confidence that those whom the Church calls Saints (Apostles, Martyrs and those who lead heroic lives for the faith) dwell with God and we with them--the Communion of Saints. And we said bravely that “we look for the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting”.
But then the music fades and the banners are put away, we are suddenly left in silence. What then? What of those near and dear to us? After all, the earliest Church called them “saints”, too. And yet we wonder: How is it with them? Where are they? Do they remember us? Will we remember them? How will we ever fill the hole they have left? We feel so alone. Perhaps it is for these reasons that the Church invites us to gather and offers us the commemoration of All Faithful Departed.
The mystery, the human anguish, the sense of loss, the desire for continued communion... these things have from antiquity found their ritualized form of expression in each culture and age...1 One expression of these is a Mexican saying that we die three deaths: the first when our bodies die, the second when our bodies are lowered into the earth out of sight, and the third when our loved ones forget us.2 These are fearful questions that are reflected in our society by an almost absolute silence about death. But this is not the response of Christians, and here is where we can learn from the practices of different cultures. In Mexico, in the mixture of Christian traditions and indigenous cultures, death is not feared; rather, it is celebrated. Tonight we have chosen to share in a part of that celebration. Look over there! See the Día de los Muertos altar we have constructed together. Many photos stand as a testimony to those whom we love but see no longer. Like icons of the better-known saints, they are windows to God in whom they now live and move and have their being, though in a different way than we do now. That is one way we can overcome the “three deaths”.
Another way is through the music which the Choir offers tonight. Jacob Clemens non Papa lived from 1515-1555, almost all of his short (and at the end, fraught) life of 40 years in the Netherlands. Little is known about his life except that he was a priest, a composer of many choral works including masses, motets, Psalm settings, and the Requiem which comprises most of our liturgical music tonight.3 While we don’t know for whom this Requiem was written, we do know that Clemens (the appellation “non Papa”--not the pope of the same name--is more humor than humility) has infused it with an intimacy and emotion that was not common in his time. Each part begins with the liturgical chant and then continues with Clemens’ beautiful polyphony.4 I hope you will allow the music to surround you; to hold and enfold you like a lullaby and give you the words and notes to go with the pictures on the table or in your mind’s eye of those who have died.
Music reaches into us in deep and profound ways, but it, and the picture-altar we have created are not the only ways to overcome “the three deaths”. Our readings all attest to God’s unfailing care of us for this life and for the next. Indeed, all the words and actions of our liturgy bring us the Good News that “life is changed, not ended”. It is Jesus who begs an invitation to come to us in Communion to fill the holes left by our departed loved ones. And it is the Holy Spirit who prays in us when we are not able to find the words... which leads us back to the music of this night’s liturgy.
The Funeral Ikos, of the contemporary composer John Tavener, which we will hear at the end of the Liturgy, gives us another way in which to hold our loved ones before God. Here, in words gathered from the Orthodox funeral of a priest, we encounter the questions I posed at the beginning--and the answer. At the death of a loved one we are always left wondering: Why? How are they now? Do they remember us as we do them? All of these questions are a natural part of the mystery of death and of our grief. But we must listen to the very end! For, like a procession, this piece begins far away. Yet even as the questions grow more urgent and the description of death more real, the Alleluias after each verse grow more confident until they become a cry of victory. And at the very end we hear that our departed loved ones dwell in God’s presence, and we are invited to join the procession:
Let us all, also, enter into Christ,
that all we may cry aloud thus unto God:
Alleluia, Alleluia, alleluia.