A reflection for All Saints and All Souls 2021

What are we doing today as we commemorate the saints and remember our loved ones departed? Simply put, we are remembering with gratitude those who we have known and loved who have died and gone to God before us and we are giving thanks for those deemed to be saints and asking for their prayers as we try to live a good Christian life.

The saints are those named by the church as being good examples to us of how to live a life dedicated to the service of Christ and to God’s people. They range from the obscure and eccentric to the known and remembered. They are remembered by the Church and us today as an encouragement in how we attempt to live our lives in the light of Christ. Like us the saints are flawed and all too human but that I think can be more of a help than a hindrance as we can see in them ourselves and we can be, as I say, encouraged in the lives we are trying to live.

Alongside the saints we are also today remembering the departed. Why?

In some expressions of the Christian Church the belief is held that by praying for by name at the altar, those who have died get days or years knocked off their time in Purgatory. Purgatory is deemed to be a place of trial that the soul goes to after being judged by God, time is spent there working off one’s sins because one needs to be fully cleansed before one can enter heaven or if one’s sins were so great to be confined to hell fire.

Some Christians remain happy with this concept but it is not one that I subscribe to and I suspect that there are many of you who would not do so either. The God, I have come to believe in is not a God of rejection but one of loving acceptance, who always offers us the chance to repent and enter fully in to his presence without having to jump through hoops or to endure hell fire.

The most helpful comment I have ever heard about what might happen to us on our death was from Canon Jane Millard when she was working as chaplain to those living with HIV and AIDS. She said that through the many journeys to death that she had accompanied the dying, she had come to believe that we die at the point that we reach our ultimate human perfection and that when we do so we are too perfect to remain in this world and thus enter in to the presence of God.

The second most helpful comment for me comes from the late Cardinal Basil Hume, who once wrote that he believed that at the point of death we get to whisper into God’s ear all the things we want to tell him, with the opportunity to say sorry for the things we got wrong, knowing that as we do so we are fully accepted and welcomed into his loving embrace.

We are given the choice to do this or not at the point of our death. If we chose not to then by our own choice we spend eternity out with the presence of God. God does not reject us we do it ourselves.

For me it is this act of whispering that takes us to the point of perfection and leads us into our death. These comments have helped me move away from any idea of Purgatory and to hope that in death we come fully into God’s being in ways that we cannot comprehend in this life.

As helpful as these comments may be they do not, however,  remove the pain of loss and separation that we feel when our loved ones die. That pain is often raw for a long time and I actually think that one never really gets over it but learns to live with the pain better as time passes. The one thing we never do is to forget those we have loved and lost – they remain alive in our memories, hearts and consciousness. In the SEC revised funeral rite there is a phrase in one of the prayers of farewell that asks that the departed will:

“...live on in the hearts and minds, courage and consciences of their family and friends...”

What this means is that every time we think of them be it with tears or with laughter, or when we do something they taught us, we keep their memory alive and in doing so bring ourselves comfort.

There is another funeral prayer that talks of using the time that we have left aright:

“Grant us, Lord, the wisdom and the grace to use aright the time that is left to us here on earth. Lead us to repent of our sins, the evil we have done and the good we have not done; and strengthen us to follow the steps of your Son, in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

I like this prayer for it reminds us that we all pass through this life quite quickly and that we should try and make the most of it as we do so. We need to regularly reflect upon our lives and to give thanks for the good things and to make amends for the things we got wrong wherever we can. It is a prayer that encourages one not to live one’s life with regrets and to get on and do the things we want to do. We cannot change the past but we can apologise for it, we live in the present and we can deal with things as they arise and we can hope for the future and perhaps control it to some extent too.

Our commemoration today encourages  us to remember our loved ones both with smiles and sorrow and it tells us not to squander the time we have left. I also think it says to us not to worry about what we may or may not leave behind either. For what we leave behind is ultimately decided by those who are left, for it is they who remember what is important to them about us. The saints did not know that they would be declared ‘saintly’ - it was after their death that others decided their lives merited that honour. This does not mean that we should not try to live a good life, far from it in actual fact because I suspect we would all like the memories we leave behind for others to be good ones and who knows thy might think us saintly too!