Sermon for All Souls' Day
November 2nd, 2021
St. John's Anglican Church, St. Eleanor's, PEI
There is a beautiful old English folk tune called ‘What is the life of man?’ which compares our human lives to the leaves on the tress. The latter two verses go thus:
Did you not see the leaves, but a short time ago, They were all in full motion, appearing to grow,
The frost came upon them, and withered them all, Then the rain came upon them—and down they did fall.
If you go to yonder churchyard, many names there you'll see, Who have fallen from this world, like the leaves from the trees, What with age and affliction all on us will call, Like the leaves, we will wither and down we shall fall.
All Hallows’ Eve, Halloween, was a day when those leaves were being torn from the trees and tossed around all over the place with the wind and rain, just as the storms and winds of life came upon all those that we are remembering tonight and carrying with us in our hearts.
All Souls’ Day is a strange but lovely moment in the life of the church. Its origins go back to the middle ages and come from the practice of praying for the souls of those that were believed to be in purgatory, that middle place between death and heaven.
During the reformation – the time in which Anglicanism came to be – the notion of purgatory, this idea that the dead must spend time being purged of the sins they committed in this life so that they can enter heaven spotless and holy, was dismissed as superstitious and not having any justification in scripture and, officially, is not an idea that is really part of Anglicanism. So to be clear, what we are doing here tonight is not attempting to pray anyone out of purgatory.
But yet this idea of All Souls’ Day has such an enduring character to it, it’s something that never quite faded in our tradition. There is something about gathering together as we are tonight in sombre quiet to remember those we love but see no longer that simply seems right and good. It provides us with a sense of comfort, it reminds us of the fact that, as the Gospel speaks to us tonight, those we remember tonight are not lost even though we don’t see them. That through Christ we can never be lost to God.
“My Father who gave them to me is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand.”
Tonight we will say that we pray for the dead, a practice that some will say is silly – what do the dead need our prayers for if they are in that state of restful bliss?
The fact is, I don’t think we cease to be our brother or our sister’s keeper when they are gone. We are members of the body of Christ, the church here in this world, and they are members of the church above – with the dead we are members of that communion of saints. When we remember them tonight and pray for them we must remember that we are praying with them.
Next Sunday we will hear from the Revelation to John which will tell us that in heaven there is a great uncountable multitude worshipping and praying around the throne of God. In our own way and in our own place, here in this life, we are doing the exact same thing with them.
But tonight, All Souls’, coming on the heel of All Saints’ Day yesterday, reminds us that God’s work of salvation and redemption is not quite finished yet.
It is of course true that those we remember and pray for tonight are in that state of joy and bliss in the presence of God, for this we give thanks and in it should find comfort. We needn’t fear for those who are departed, they are lacking nothing.
But the final promise of God through Jesus is that he will one day return. That there will be a day of resurrection when God’s Kingdom will come in all its fulness, when every wrong will be righted, when every thing in this world will be redeemed, and the dead will have their bodily resurrection in the New Jerusalem.
Tonight as we pray for the dead, we are really praying for the hastening of God’s Kingdom, as the great 16th century John Donne once put it, praying with and for the triumphant church in heaven and the militant church still on earth (us), that, “we, with all others departed in the true faith of his holy name, may have this perfect consummation, both of body and soul, in his everlasting glory.”
The leaves that fall to the ground and decay, this time of year, and the sad and lonely looking trees that are left barren and stark against gray November skies, bleak though they may seem, never fail to remind us of the spring-time resurrection when green buds appear and life will once again burst forth.
Tonight we remember that the same is true for us and for the dead that are with us here. Their falling to the ground, their death, reminds us of the hope of the greater glory that has been promised to us, the one for which we, with them, are waiting and praying.