All Souls, Year B

A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Feast of All Souls, Year B
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
The Feast of All Souls is a day when we turn our attention to the faithful departed in prayer that they (and we with them) might discover through the grave not an end, but a gate to the joy of the resurrection through which, in the company of Christ, we pass to eternal life. So we remember. But, another of the purposes of All Souls is to remind of the reality of death—the facticity of our own mortality and the undeniability 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 chance, 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. 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 the 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, true happiness if you like—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 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.
One of the great Russian theologians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was a priest named Sergei Bulgakov (1887-1944). His life is a kind of icon for the powerful transformation that results from the remembrance of the fragility of life to which the Feast of All Souls calls us. Fr. Sergei was born into a Levitical family (a family of priests), but stopped believing in God in his youth. He studied Marxism and Economics in post-Revolutionary Russian and became a professor. At some point, however, he realized something was missing. There was more to life than the materialist economics in which he was versed and which he taught his students. Traveling one day out in the vastness of the Russian steppes he felt an intuition of “a more” that his neat and tidy theories of historical materialism, class struggle, and ownership of the means of production could not account for.
Bulgakov entered the seminary and was ordained a priest. In 1922, as part of the effort to rid Russia of dissidents, he was exiled to Paris where he lived until his death in 1944. Five years before his death he underwent an operation for cancer of laryx from which he was not expected to recovery. Miraculously, despite having been given what we in the West call “last rites,” he survived. Fitted with a mechanical box that would amplify his voice, he continued to celebrate the Divine Liturgy daily for the next five years before succumbing to a stroke in his 73rd year. When you read about the effect that Fr. Bulgakov’s near death experience had on him, it is quite remarkable. Clearly, he was saintly man much-admired as a spiritual father before his cancer operation, but his unexpected survival had a profound effect on how he conducted his life with the time he had left.
One of the first things you hear about Fr. Bulgakov’s life during this period is that he was committed to forgiveness, confession, and reconciliation. He lived the words of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians “do not let the sun go down on your anger” in a truly committed way. No matter how insignificant the slight, Fr. Sergei always sought to reconcile with the one he wronged before the end of the day. If it was late in the day, he sought them out at home. Failing that, he would spend the night in prayer and meet with the person first thing in the morning. Not knowing how much time he had left, Fr. Sergei saw the importance of living from the ground of forgiveness and reconciliation. He didn’t want to die with unforgiveness in his heart.
Another thing you glean from his conduct during this period is the manner in which he celebrated the Divine Liturgy. It was said that each time he stepped to the altar to celebrate the holy mysteries, it was as if Fr. Sergei thought this might be the last Eucharist of his life. The Eucharist, of course, is sine qua non of what it means to live from gift and givenness. It is the celebration that everything we have we have from God and that in offering back to God what is rightly his we find our true purpose in life. The Eucharist teaches us, forms us in the reality, that we are made for praise and adoration, that we find our true and lasting purpose, ultimate joy, in self-forgetful worship of the source of all beauty, truth and goodness. Giving ourselves away in adoration, losing our life as we normally experience it as an endless round of getting and spending, securing and holding fast, we find that who we really are is found in God who gives us back to ourselves as a new creation.
When we realize the centrality and importance of the Eucharist—that it shows us what it actually means to be fully human—it makes sense that Father Sergei took each celebration so seriously and approached with the knowledge that it could be his last. His brush with death taught him how easy it is to forget what it means to live from gift. His brush with death taught him what it meant to live eucharistically—to see each moment, each person, each mountain, river, and forest, as a sacrament of God’s self-giving love. How easy it is for us to lapse into all that mechanistic, repetitive, and habitual—to forget that the place we are standing is holy ground and that each moment offers the possibility for transformative encounter with the burning bushes that literally litter our lives like confetti. Fr. Sergei’s brush with death woke him up from the slumber of inattention that is the human condition and grounded him in the here and now—fully alive, fully awake, immersed wholeheartedly in sacrament of the present moment with the doors of his heart flung open, welcoming whatever it offered up.
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. Fr Sergei’s life and 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.


Popular posts from this blog

Funeral Homily for Barbara Losse

Poem for Wednesday

Presentation of Our Lord: Mary, Simeon, and Anna--Three Windows onto the Life of Faith