|For Reflection: This week’s reflection is by our Curate, Gill Alexander
Reading Matthew 5: 1-12Bottom of Form
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Coronavirus restrictions led us this year to include into our Sunday morning service for All Saints’ Day our prayers for All Souls’ Day.
At first glance there might seem to be a tension in our worship between the joy and triumphalism of All Saints Day where we sing our praises to the venerated witnesses of God’s abiding love and All Souls Day, a day when we pray for our loved ones who have died – the faithful departed.
Death brings separation and sadness, not joy - and for some people here the memories are still sharp and raw with grief and tears, for others there is a long sadness which never quite goes. The loss of a loved one shakes the very ground of our being – it can leave us struggling to find the resources to face life. Our sense of loss this year is particularly poignant as we grieve as a nation for the loss of tens of thousands of lives as a result of the virus and as we mourn the loss of a way of life – our old normal. Lament may seem more appropriate that hymns of praise.
How might we reconcile this tension between anxiety and loss and our celebration of the Saints?
We might want to draw on St Paul’s use of the word saint to mean all those sanctified by Jesus Christ. He writes in his Epistles to - ‘all the saints’. It is a vision of sainthood which includes the exceptional heroes of faith who have inspired us (like St Cuthbert, St Aidan, St Francis and St Hild), but holds us too and those who have died whom we love. So, we talk about the communion of saints to describe all the faithful who have gone before us, who now rest in God, together with all the living who walk in faith.
As we celebrate the named saints, each of us has names and faces in our memory of our own faithful departed, the numerous ordinary people for whose influence on our lives we thank God.
Our Gospel reading is appointed for All Saints’ day. It is known as the Beatitudes. However, I think we miss something important today if we hear in Matthew 5 Jesus issuing a prescription for sainthood.
When he addressed the crowd Jesus saw ordinary people who were struggling. He saw people who were poor in spirit who had lost their zest for life, he saw people who mourned, he saw people who lacked confidence and a sense of self-worth. He saw people struggling to find the resources to live. And he told them that he could see something in them that they could not see – he told them that they were blessed. He invited them to look at themselves differently as children of God who are blessed by God, as St John said in his letter, created out of love and intended to be a loving people. He encouraged them to not let their grief, despair or anger obliterate their faith in the love of God. He invited them to do the hard work of digging deep into the reservoirs of the love that has created and sustained them and know that the love that comes from God is everlasting.
In this service of All Saints and All Souls we are invited to set our remembrance of the faithfulness of the Saints and those we have known, alongside our remembrance of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ who suffered and died on the cross and yet through his resurrection burst through the bonds of death to show that nothing, not even death itself, can separate us from the love of God.
This isn’t to deny grief. If you have known what it is to be bereaved, however deep your faith and your belief in resurrection, you still miss that beloved person.
People sometimes ask me whether they could still have a relationship with the person who has died. Many at first, want to carry on communicating with them and have gone down the route of mediums and spiritualists. I do not believe that this is right. The New Testament speaks not of communicating but of communion. The communion of saints speaks of that special relationship and union and fellowship between those who are bound together by the love that comes from God, a bond that cannot be broken, even by death.
It is communion with those whom we love but see no longer, but communion at the deepest level, beyond language, closer, more intimate, spirit with spirit.
There is a remarkable passage in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets which describes this extraordinary communion with the dead. It may be something you understand personally:
“And what the dead had no speech for, when living, they can tell you, being dead. The communication of the dead is tongued with fire, beyond the language of the living.”
St. Augustine knew what this communion was about. When he lost his beloved mother, Monica, he writes in his Confessions, “God forbid that in a higher state of existence she should cease to think of me, she who loved me more than words can tell.”
These beautiful lines for me, express what we are doing when we pray for the dead. We are not asking God to do things for us or our loved ones. The true work of prayer, is quite different. In Michael Ramsey’s book The Christian Priest Today he says that true prayer is not really to do with making petitions, or indeed with uttering words at all. It is, rather, simply being with God with others on our hearts: being with God and holding those we love before him – seeing them and ourselves through the lens of his abiding love - and how can we stop loving someone, stop holding them in our hearts before God, simply because they have passed from this life? Death cannot kill the love that binds us together in a bond which transcends time and space.
For it is ultimately the unbreakable bond of love which lifts us above both time and space, into the very life of God himself.
And in our Eucharist this morning, as we celebrate again the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the present is once more shot through with the timeless, and we are brought through love, into the very presence of God and into the presence of those we love, the communion of saints and the whole company of heaven.
And for that we can sing our praises and say thanks be to God.
Questions for Reflection
- Which Saint – famous or unrecognised - would you like to meet up with to thank for the influence they have had on your life?
- What would you like to ask them?
- What do you think we could learn from their example to help us be a church of living hope in these uncertain and challenging times?