All Souls Day
The Revd Canon Chris Moody Sunday 4 November 2018
I am very fond of the words of the Russian Kontakion for the dead sung at Orthodox funerals:
Give rest, O Christ, to thy servant with thy saints:
where sorrow and pain are no more;
neither sighing but life everlasting.
Thou only art immortal, the creator and maker of man:
and we are mortal formed from the dust of the earth,
and unto earth shall we return:
for so thou didst ordain,
when thou created me saying:
“Dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.”
All we go down to the dust;
and weeping o’er the grave we make our song:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
I like it for the balance it preserves between sadness and hope: ‘weeping o’er the grave we make our song’. There is the grief. But the song is ‘alleluia, alleluia, alleluia’- a song of victory and of hope.
This seems to me to be entirely right. When someone dies who we love, there is an undeniable deficit, a gap where that person was. We will never again be able to communicate with them - physically and emotionally - in the way we always did. So there is grief at first and always a lingering sadness when we remember them. Faced with the wall of death and our inability, unaided, to see beyond it, we weep and are sorrowful.
But, as we stand at the grave and weep, we do so as those who hope and pray in the communion of saints. We continue to sing our alleluias over the people we have lost. As one of the epistles says ‘we are not sorry as those without hope, for them that die in him’. So at the same time as feeling sad, we are in a different way, joyful. Something which is touched on in the fifth verse of the hymn ‘For all the saints’.
'And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long’ (there is, as I think of it, the struggle with grief and pain)/’steals on the ear the distant triumph song/ and hearts are brave again and arms are strong’ (and then again, the song of victory) Alleluia.'
The gospel today about the raising of Lazarus is part of a much larger conversation in John, Chapter 11, that Jesus has, first of all with his disciples, and then with Martha and Mary over Lazarus’s death. This contains this moment between Jesus and Martha. Jesus says: ‘Your brother will rise again’. Martha replies ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day’. Jesus says to her ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.’
At every funeral we begin the service with these words ‘I am the resurrection and the life.' In them, as it were, Jesus projects what is our future hope, Martha’s hope and ours, that we will all rise at the last day, into the present; ‘I am the resurrection and the life’. As a believer I already have that experience of being in a trusting relationship with Him as my Living Lord. Therefore, I need have no anxiety either for myself, or for those I have lost.
This is a great release. We need not fear death. As St Paul says, ‘Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s’. This is the reason we can sing alleluia on the brink of the grave, because we are all part of that communion established in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
So our conversation with those we have lost who are dear to us continues. Released from the fear of death, new memories and insights about them and our relationship with them continue to enrich and inform our lives long after we have lost them. We don’t have to be afraid of our sorrow, that it will overwhelm us, or that we should pretend it is not there. There is a balance.
Perhaps the greatest consolation in the story of Lazarus is that Jesus the Saviour, when he gets to the tomb, himself weeps over the death of his friend. He comes with us one weeping at the loss and conscious of the depth and pain of it, as well as the One who stands on the other side of the chasm to open the gate to all believers.
Resting in that knowledge, hope and awareness, we realise as we journey ourselves towards our end, that we are journeying, not away from those we have lost, but towards them. And so we sing our song ‘alleluia, alleluia, alleluia’.