The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,and no torment will ever touch them.In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,and their departure was thought to be a disaster,and their going from us to be their destruction;but they are at peace. Wisdom of Solomon 3: 1-3
As a pastor, I am around death, and the dying, more often than your average person. Of all aspects of my ministry, that one portion was one for which I was prepared. My father's father was an funeral director, and most of my early memories of visiting his and my paternal grandmother's home revolved in some way around "the family business." I, my sister and our cousins were all indoctrinated from an early age to be familiar with death and dying. Family trips in the car invariably contained the "who did we bury there" question as we drove past local burying grounds and cemeteries. All of us remember playing hide and seek in and amongst tombs, mausoleums and grave markers when Grandpa was running an errand or two. Once, we decided to play in the casket display room, and were nearly caught when he had to bring a family down. We avoided scandal by hiding in the catafalques. Please don't receive these stories as scandal...instead use them as a way to understand that while most folks become uneasy around the dead, we were never really given the chance to see being in their company as anything other than, well....normal.
That sense of normalcy has been a profound gift in these later years as I serve the people of God as priest and guide over the rocky ground of bereavement. Most people don't know, and in some cases have never known a person who is dead. They have heard stories of those who have gone before, or know of death at a remote distance. Few know what it is like to be with someone who is dying, has just died and/or is dead and passed. It can be frightening. It is always heartbreaking. It never fails to shock, even when it is expected. Almost always, the first question out of someone's mouth after they realize that this great thing has happened is, "What do I do now?"
That question is so monumental in its aspect and impact. It means so much. The answer ranges from a simple, "Now we call the funeral home," to "You just keep breathing and taking each moment on as it comes." Somewhere in the middle, between those extremities, people begin to grieve, to mourn, to move through loss and on into surviving. That takes time, and effort. It takes no small dose of care and love from support networks around the bereaved. It takes a big dose of grace, and the assuaging balm of faith and hope.
All Saints' day always makes me mindful of the many people I have known who have died. From relatives and friends to more distant acquaintances, the names and faces rise up in my memory in these days with fond affection in two ways: I remember and celebrate their lives; and I remember and mark their being dead. I do not struggle to see them alive, nor do I pull back from a fond grieving of their memory. I do not wish one more moment with them, but I do look forward to a time in the resurrection when we see each other face to face in the light and love of the Presence of God.
And so, the scriptures of All Saints are like an icon for me. The passage above, from the Wisdom of Solomon, captures poetically the many feelings that churn and roil about in me as I remember and memorialize those many whom I have known and lost....and even those who I did not know at all. The Gospel story also offers consolation, particularly for those losses that I am perhaps not quite so sanguine about. Lazarus is dead, and Jesus is late (intentionally so, it seems) to the healing. It is too late. He is dead. He is laid in the tomb coming up on four days. By his own sister's acknowledgment, "There will be a stench." Jesus weeps. He weeps for his friend, in full knowledge of experiencing death as it absolutely is..."What do I do now?"
|Rembrandt's "Raising of Lazarus"|
The miracle of All Saints is not so much the memorializing of the dead; rather, it is a celebration of life. It is a paean to the mortal life shared as well as the promise of the life to come. It is a recognition that that great, fixed gulf between life and death that we now know is-in the coming Kingdom of God-to become so thin as to not even exist at all.
Our prayers for the saints allow their death, are an acceptance of our dying and an affirmation of the eternal life we are summoned to when Jesus cries out as he did to his friend, "Come forth!"