How many of you have experienced the death of a parent? Both parents? Me too. Like some of you, perhaps, I keep a photograph of my mum and dad on my bedside table. I was sixteen when I took a picture of them standing next to the Vedder River, near Chilliwack. We had travelled there to accompany my dad on one of his field surveys – typical of family vacations growing up. It’s not a great shot. It’s faded with time, and I didn’t hold the camera straight. Both my parents are squinting in the bright sunlight, and my mother – typically – is wearing a scarf over her curlers. But they strike a rarely affectionate pose for my emotionally undemonstrative family; their arms around each other’s waist, smiling benevolently at their eccentric child with his cheap drug store camera.
I’ve been an orphan now almost fifteen years; and with the passage of time, it’s easier and easier to forget my mum and dad. But sometimes I’ll hear a popular song from the 1940s that mum used to sing in her high, reedy soprano; or catch a whiff of fibreglass resin – of all things – which my dad used in repairing the riverboats he piloted as a surveyor. And then memories just flood in. It could be a parental idiosyncrasy, a half-recalled conversation, or a five second vignette replaying in my mind’s eye: a remembrance of the warmth and love I felt following my mother downtown when, walking ahead of me, she would stretch out her hand behind her for me to grasp. Moments like this make it hard for me to believe I’m a grown man.
I share this with you because I know that I am not alone. Communion with our ancestors is simply a part of who we are as human beings, and thus a huge part of our spiritual consciousness. We are surrounded by the dead. They fill our homes with their photographs and mementoes. There is the afghan my mother knitted me which lies on my bed, my grandma’s oatcake recipe which I still dust off from time to time, and my father’s wedding ring which I wear all the time. I still have vivid dreams of those I’ve known who have died, whose features, voices, and characteristics are far more real in sleep than I can evoke in waking memory. We are surrounded by the dead. And that is a good thing, a comforting thing.
Our faith is founded on a death, but – more to the point – a profession that life triumphs over death. This is not a uniquely Christian claim; for religions and cults of death and rebirth are almost as widespread and ancient as death rituals themselves. Indeed, Christianity conjoined its two major festivals of Christmas and Easter – festivals of birth, death, and rebirth – to existing pagan festivals marking the death and rebirth cycle of the seasons; winter and spring, respectively. We join much of the human family in embracing death, not as an ending, but as a new beginning – hence the commendation at the end of our funeral service, which proclaims, “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”
The dead are therefore, in a very real sense, alive. And by alive, I do not mean simply alive to memory, or alive in our DNA, but quite literally present. This was understood by our ancestors in the faith, such as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews. In a striking passage, he writes, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” That cloud of witnesses surrounds us, unseen but felt, and they serve as agents of encouragement. Not just models of encouragement, note, but actual agents – they act.
Sunday by Sunday we acknowledge the death of Jesus of Nazareth. We commemorate it in a ritual act, which we call a sacrament – the Holy Eucharist. In that act, we profess a spiritual belief that Jesus also is present…again in a very real, corporeal sense. He is present in the bread and the wine, his mystical body and blood. That is in itself an incredibly potent and spiritually revolutionary act. To appreciate how revolutionary it is, consider if you assembled a family feast and proclaimed that a beloved relative was present in plate of biscuits you were passing around; or the bottle of Merlot you uncorked. At some point, absurdity mutates into profundity.
The conviction that life is an eternal state rather than a temporary condition is foundational to our faith. Therefore, on some level, the Eucharist memorialises all the dead. We set today aside to acknowledge that. As we raise the bread and the wine and experience its transformation into the source and sustainer of life itself, we see our dead rise. We see surrounding us that great cloud of witnesses – those holy people of our collective memory; those holy people abiding in your heart and mind; and those holy people otherwise long forgotten to living memory, but retained in the eternal memory of the Holy One. All Saints is a day to remind ourselves that we are all relatives, one of another. That genetic connection is very much a spiritual one, as well.
That sentiment is echoed as much by the Old Testament as the new. Today we heard the Prophet Daniel announce that “the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.” And that intuitive understanding of the continuity of our essential, spiritual existence is not just a cultural artefact of the Abrahamic faiths. Funerary customs, beliefs about the afterlife, and the veneration of the dead appear to be very ancient in origin, as the work of anthropologists of mythology, such as Joseph Campbell, have demonstrated. They are also widespread, spanning every known culture from the polar Arctic to the islands of the South Pacific.
These facts attest to the centrality of death in the human understanding of spirituality. There seems to be something in dying which impels us human beings to perceive it as a transition; as a doorway into a reality of another world or another dimension. And associated with this is the sense that the dead, in some sense, persist in their existence. We are visited by them in our dreams. We offer prayers and sacrifices for them. We invoke them in story and song. We even talk to them, seeking their counsel, their intercession, their protection.
Some years ago, I visited the Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco. If you’re ever there, you should pop your head in. There you’ll see the cupola above the altar, painted with a huge, vivid icon of the dancing saints. Figures from history – Christian and non-Christian – join hands above the congregation, their heads backlit by nimbuses of gold. St. Paul is there, of course, but so is Charles Darwin. John XXIII looks down alongside Martin Luther. Anne Frank accompanies Malcolm X. And below, the congregation, too, assembles in a circle and dances around the altar as a part of their Eucharistic celebration. It is powerful testimony that the cloud of witnesses is very deep and very broad.
Jesus, in the Beatitudes of his Sermon on the Plain, which we heard read as our Gospel today, makes the same fundamentally inclusive statement. Blessed are the poor, the grieving, the meek, those who seek righteousness, those who show mercy, and those who strive to attain a moral life. Blessed, too, those who work for peace, those who experience marginalization or oppression, and those who are reviled for the faith or culture that they profess. Blessed, in other words, are the salt of the earth who give existence the flavour of love which transforms it into life – life eternal.
Rest eternal grant unto them, O Holy One, and let light perpetual shine upon them. Amen.