All Faithful Departed. A Sermon by Mother Julia Gatta

The Commemoration of All Faithful Departed,[1] which we celebrate today, has a somewhat different history and a different character from yesterday’s high festival. If the observance of an All Saints’ Day came about because of a deep Christian instinct to honor, first of all, the martyrs, and then later those exemplary Christians who were “the lights of the world in their generation,” the saints with a capital “S,” All Souls’ Day came into being because of another sort of Christian instinct: the urge to pray for the dead.   Both feast days are grounded in the doctrine and the experience we have of the “communion of saints.” Our bonds to one another are not severed by death but are still, in fact, quite lively. And because we are still tied to one another in the living Christ, we believe that we can still help each other through prayer. In Christ, the veil separating this life from the next is quite permeable. And so it happened that by the late tenth century, a commemoration of all the faithful departed began to be observed first in monastic houses and then throughout the Western Church. It was set on November 2 as something of an extension of All Saints. But the spirit of this day is more somber.   On All Souls’ Day, as it is popularly known, we recall the countless numbers of not especially heroic, but rather ordinary Christians who have lived before us, most of whose names are forgotten to all but God. Today we inevitably hold before God those dead who are especially dear to us, family members and friends. Some of these blessed souls were deeply faithful; others, like ourselves, were deeply flawed. Because God’s transforming grace reaches everywhere, including the realm of the dead, the life of the faithful departed is not one of static repose but a continual journey into the infinite depths of God, who purifies, reforms, heals, and irradiates us with his love. Our prayers for the dead articulate such a dynamic sense of grace. We began this liturgy by praying, “Grant to the faithful departed the unsearchable benefits of the passion of your Son.” In the burial office, we ask that they will increase in “knowledge and love” of God and “go from strength to strength in the life of perfect service” in God’s “heavenly kingdom.”  There is movement, and our prayers lovingly connect us to all the faithful departed as they go forward ever more deeply into God’s light and life.

Now all this would be utter nonsense and an exercise in sentimental play-acting were the bonds between the living and the dead not grounded in Christ’s resurrection, the source of all Christian living and hope. St. Paul is at pains to make the connection between Christ’s resurrection and our own as he expounds this topic in chapter 15 of his First Letter to the Corinthians, the conclusion of which we just heard. “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,” he says, perhaps tweaking (as Christopher Bryan has suggested[2]) those members of the Corinthian church who were saying just that in order to deny the resurrection of the body. No! “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,” says Paul, because our flesh and blood—like everything else in the world—is doomed to die. It is mortal, perishable, corruptible. Mortality is what we have in common with every human being and indeed with every other thing, sentient or not. It is our tragic legacy, as Paul argues in this chapter, from Adam, “the human being.” Eternal life, then, is not just this present life continued indefinitely: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” Nor is our hope based on an innate “immortality of the soul”—an idea that would have been quite congenial to many in the ancient world, especially in the Greek ethos of Corinth. No doubt the “immortality of the soul” could seem more spiritual and elevated, less crudely materialistic, than the resurrection of the body.  But Paul will have none of it. He begins this section of his letter by reminding the Corinthians of some physical facts: that Jesus himself died in the flesh and was raised on the third day.  In his death Jesus suffered the fate of every child of Adam, of every mortal. But in his rising from the dead, he became what Paul calls the “last Adam”: the human being who transforms our mortal nature from the inside. “For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” What will inherit the kingdom of God is not the “flesh and blood” of our present constitution, prone as it is to sickness, old age, debility, and death, but a “sōma pneumatikon”—a body vivified and filled with the Spirit—the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead, as Paul says elsewhere. Resurrection requires transformation: “For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.”

When will this happen? Paul here as elsewhere draws upon the imagery of Jewish apocalyptic to describe the indescribable consummation of the last day: “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.” History reaches its liminal point, dissolving into eschatology. Meanwhile, what happens to our dead, to ourselves, to the “faithful departed” for whom we pray today? How long do we have to wait for resurrection, for our perishable bodies (now dissolved or recycled beyond recognition) to put on imperishability, to be animated with the Spirit, to become “sōma pneumatikon”? Here language breaks down because thought itself stumbles. We do not know what it is to live in time beyond time, living in God who holds all time—past, present, and future—and who simultaneously transcends time in the dynamic fullness of Being which is the Holy Trinity.

We do know, however, what it is to live in Christ: that is our present experience. And we have some inkling–do we not?—of how time bends upon itself when we pray or as we experience the Risen Christ coming to us from our own future in the sacraments. “The hour is coming, and is now here,” says Jesus, “when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” We have heard that voice, summoning us from the death of sin, calling us to live—to live in him—again and again. That voice calls and keeps calling and will call us still when we breathe our last and “at the last trumpet.” And just as our baptism into Christ’s life entails a daily death to sin, so for the faithful departed, who departed this life wounded, incomplete, and imperfect, it is not too much to imagine that their entry into fullness of life in Christ would involve continued moral and spiritual reformation, purification, and illumination. So naturally we pray for them, as they, presumably, pray for us.

When I was a senior in college, I took a course in Dante, one of the best courses I ever took. Of the three books that comprise his Commedia, I was most drawn to the Purgatorio. I was struck above all by the joy of the blessed ones, as little by little they were freed from “every weight and the sin which clings so closely” (as the Epistle to the Hebrews describes our ascetical challenge). They toiled during the day in the hard work of undoing past sinful habits and at night experienced sheer grace: the active and contemplative lives enacted on the Mount of Purgatory. I found myself yearning to join them. And then I realized that I could: no reason purgation or the life of conversion couldn’t begin now! Shortly after, I went to confession.

In many ways, Paul is saying the same thing to his overly speculative Corinthians: “Get on with it!” It’s all right to wonder about last things. Of course we ask what happens to the dead when they die. Of course we think about how we will share in the resurrection of Jesus after we too have died and our bodies are decayed. Mature faith is faith seeking understanding. But we cannot get stuck in endless speculation, especially if it leads to spiritual paralysis. And so Paul concludes by prodding his beloved Corinthians a bit: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” Our labor—the hard work that the kingdom of God be established in our hearts and be manifested in our world—is not in vain. Our faith is not in vain, for Christ is risen from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection grounds our hope that nothing done for his sake is lost irretrievably nor are any lost who belong to him.

[1] This the text of a sermon preached by the Reverend Dr. Julia Gatta on All Souls Day 2016 in the Chapel of the Apostles in Sewanee, Tennessee.

[2] Christopher Bryan, The Resurrection of the Messiah (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 61.

Christopher Bryan

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