A Twinkling Mystery--A Sermon for All Souls

A Meditation Delivered at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
All Souls: Wisdom 3:1-9 Psalm 130; Isaiah 25:6-9;1 Corinthians 15:50-58; John 5:24-27
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
If you ever travel to Mt. Athos—the monastic republic studded with monasteries and hermitages on a rocky island off the shores of Greece—you’ll be confronted with what might at first be a shocking sight. Somewhere in every monastery, usually not even tucked too far out of view, is a pile of bones. After the monks die they are buried in their habits under a heavy slab of slate and then dug up after three or four years. The flesh having decayed, the smaller bones are placed with their confreres in metal-lidded ossuary and the skulls arranged in a kind of charnel house. Why on earth would they do such a thing? It all seems a little morbid, doesn’t it? Especially if you hear the abbot making jokes about the imperishable nature of polyester socks as they are wont to do!
One of the purposes of All Souls is to remind of the reality of death—the facticity of our own mortality and change. “Oh, come on. Who needs to be reminded of that?” you might ask. “Everybody knows we are going to die.” I’ll grant that somewhere, deep down, often pushed into the nether regions of our conscious awareness, is a dim recognition that someday we will die, that life is uncertain and fleeting, and that change and loss will accompany us every step of the way. But this awareness is often too much for us to bear. We simply cannot face up to the starkness of what it means to be a human being in a body that gets old, gets sick, and dies, and so we do what human beings are well-practiced at—we distract ourselves. We distract ourselves with all manner of vanities—the pursuit of wealth, power, esteem, sensual pleasure—all in an effort to manufacture for ourselves an illusory sense of safety and security. We coast along on the surface of our life, enthralled by whatever passing distraction we’ve latched onto and insulate ourselves against the call of the deep, the call to life abundant, the call not to fleeting happiness, but deep, abiding, and unshakeable joy.
            The road to joy, however, is one that requires we get real with ourselves. It requires the recognition that we often prefer to push the facticity of our own mortality out of our consciousness in favor of something more sweet, sugary, and palatable. Like those monks on Mount Athos, however, reminding ourselves of our own mortality is not meant to keep us in a mopey daze of Romantic melancholia. The remembrance of death is meant to wake us up to our life, and show us where true happiness is to be found. The remembrance of death is meant to instill in us a tender-hearted recognition of the preciousness of each moment, and the startling realization that everything we have is given to us as sheer gift by a loving God whose only desire is that we should participate in His every life.
Happiness is passing and often the fruit of pursuing a surface distraction that we use to keep the truth of death at bay. Or said more pointedly—happiness is fruit of the denial of death. Joy—the knowledge that nothing can separate us from the love of God no matter the circumstances of our life—is born by facing up to the reality of death, looking death squarely in the face and learning its tough lesson. I’m reminded of those lines by Jean Paul Richter—“Winter, which strips the leaves from around us/makes us see the distant regions they formerly concealed.”
Looking death in face, walking past the skulls of our monastic brethren arranged neatly on shelf, actually strips away all that obscures our vision. Like those leaves that fall to the ground and allow us to peer into distant regions, the contemplation of death shows us in a powerful way what is essential and what is trivial, what is unshakeable and what will tumble like a house of cards at the first sign of trouble. So death has this powerful ability to teach us not to be frivolous, to devote ourselves to what really matters and not be distracted by the endless entreaties of trivial minutiae our instant gratification culture has perfected.
But for the Christian, this isn’t the whole story. Any good existentialist will tell you just what I’ve just said.  When we look deeper at death, particularly through the life, death, and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ, we see something else. That death doesn’t have the final word. That death isn’t the end of the story. Through Christ’s resurrection, the power of death, the fearful thrall in which it keeps us, death’s dominion, has been broken. Our reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians is a beautiful illustration of this—Paul is actually thumbing his nose at death using a well-known rhetorical device of the time: a taunt-song. Like a child saying “nah-nah-nah-nah-boo-boo” and blowing a raspberry, Paul is taunting death. In the resurrection of Jesus, the dominion death enjoyed, the power it had over peoples’ imaginations and how they lived their lives, has been broken. Death has been trampled down by death. Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. And when the reality of union with God in Christ through the Spirit flowers in the center of our soul, our life becomes one long, unrepeatably unique alleluia sung in a key what only we can sing. Even when we go down to the grave—alleluia.
This is not the simple denial of death, but it’s polar opposite. It is the deep looking into the hard fact of our contingency and mortality, and seeing—in the light of the Risen Christ—that bodily dissolution is not the end. This is the knowledge born of Christ being born in us and seeing the world with the same eye with which God sees it, with eyes alert to the new creation, with Easter eyes. Paul saw with these eyes and experienced it in the depths of his heart. In this letter it is almost as if he is pulling us aside and whispering in our ear—"Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed…in a twinkling of an eye.” Does that sound like a dutiful recitation of a creed (that didn’t even exist yet) to you? Or does it sound like outpouring of a soul that encountered the Risen Christ, had the obscuring leaves stripped away, and glimpsed something of that far country where death has been swallowed up in victory? This is poetry born of direct seeing into the reality that love is stronger than death.
And lest we think that eternal life is something that happens after we die, our Gospel for this evening reminds us of something else. In John, eternal life is a real and present possibility in the very here-and-now of our earthly existence. Unshackled by the fear of death, having seen through it’s limited picture of who we are called to be and from where we are to live, we discover the unparalleled freedom of Christ—not just freedom from the fear of death, but freedom to love.
On this day, we pray for all souls—not just the “faithful departed” as our collect says—but ALL SOULS. For in God’s love there are not insiders and outsiders, those on top and those on the bottom, clean and unclean, faithful and unfaithful. God’s love embraces all souls—not just those who have been faithful and died perfect deaths at peace with God. Since, despite our protestations to the contrary, we prefer a God we are fed to than one who feeds us, it might come as a surprise that not even faith is a requirement for God to love us. God loves all souls, and perhaps those who don’t know that they are loved, who cannot believe they are even worthy of such love—like sad, stricken, isolated Judas—perhaps they are the ones God loves most. This is a day when we celebrate the astounding reality that there is no one beyond the reach of God’s loving embrace, and that God’s hand—reaching out in welcome, inviting us in, beckoning us to the feast—will never be withdrawn. Never.
On this day, we offer prayers for comfort, peace, and courage to face the days ahead for those who mourn, and for whom the sharpness of grief and loss is painfully present reality. But we also remember the dead because it is in remembering them, seeing deeply into this twinkling mystery, that we discover what it means to be truly and authentically alive. That is perhaps the greatest way of remembering those we love but no longer see: to cherish this fleeting, transitory life—like a dream, like grass, like a sigh—that fades and withers away. Contemplating death we wake up from our slumber, the distracted living death that has us sleep-walking through our lives. Like that shelf of monks’ skulls, the Feast of All Souls teaches us to train our eyes and center our hearts on Christ, to make his life our own, that we might taste and live from that spring of living water rising up to eternal life right here and now. The world can’t wait. Come and drink. Then go and be that water for all you meet.


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