Feature Article – in ‘The Tablet’
Those gone before us
Parish Practice – Nicholas Henshall – 2 November 2013
Remembering the departed and praying for them takes on a special significance on the Feast of All Souls, which takes place today. An Anglican priest learned this lesson early on in his career
When I was 29 years old, in 1992, I had been serving as curate in a very traditional mining town for four years, in charge of my first parish at the rough end of Newcastle upon Tyne – a church with a tiny congregation and with little hope of a future. It was 2 November, and in my first few months, I’d already faced every kind of challenge and most of my initiatives had failed. I don’t know what I was expecting on 2 November; but I approached it with trepidation.
Of course, I knew what to do. All Souls’ Day was one of my childhood memories – crowd scenes as people pushed to the front to light candles to pray for the dead. And, in my curacy, we had the traditional three celebrations of the Eucharist to accommodate the numbers who came. But here, west Newcastle, there was no tradition, no congregation. So I wondered what would happen.
And then, they came in their hundreds. Our ragged church was full and I was not prepared for it. These were not in any sense regular members of the congregation. In fact, as I looked round, I realised that most of these were people absolutely on the fringes of the Church, but for whom I had taken funerals in the last few months – and I was bewildered.
What I did was what I knew: I celebrated the Eucharist for the faithful departed, though fully aware that most people there were completely unfamiliar with the Eucharist, and that, for many, the notion of faithful departed would have been a big question mark. Flailing around for an appropriate response, towards the end of a liturgy that had been electric with expectation – and one at which almost no one had received Communion – I simply invited anyone who wished to come forward and light a candle for the person they had come to remember.
I might have been able to predict what would happen next. A vast scrum as mothers, sons, grandparents, husbands, nephews and nieces came forward eagerly, candles in hand, and filled the inadequate tray I had prepared with a blaze of glory.
Over a decade in west Newcastle, the All Souls’ Day Eucharist became our largest celebration (other than Christmas Eve). There were some things in common – bread and wine and candles, and over the years a lot of the same people were there. But it was not what I had expected. In my childhood and in my upbringing, All Souls’ Day had been a stately act of remembrance. Here it was a visceral celebration, tears and laughter mingling.
There are multiple ways to approach this annual day of prayer for the departed. But it is worth recalling some history and then working out an appropriate pastoral and liturgical response for today. All Souls’ Day is in the western calendar the day after All Saints’ Day. But All Saints – that wonderful celebration of the saints in glory – did take some time to find a fixed place in the calendar. Originally it was celebrated on the first Sunday after Pentecost, as it still is in the Eastern Churches. In the West, it then shifted to 13 May, the day of the consecration of the Pantheon in Rome, and finally moved to 1 November under Gregory III in the eighth century.
This was a fantastic piece of opportunism. Europe did not become a majority Christian culture until after 999 AD, and Gregory III was taking an inspired opportunity. He knew that 31 October/1 November was the pagan day of the dead and he wanted to trump this. Christians have a better word to say about life and death than pagans do – a glorious vision where the saints in Heaven and earth are one. By the ninth century, All Saints’ Day had become a universal Christian celebration in the West.
All Souls’ Day was a natural extension of this. If we are remembering the saints, then of course this is a season to pray especially for the faithful departed. Odilo, the great Abbot of Cluny, made this a fixture in the Benedictine calendar and from there it spread across the Western Church.
So All Saints and All Souls have a deep share in the paschal mystery. Together they are a powerful theological and pastoral proclamation that through the harrowing of hell Jesus leads us to glory. The question then remains, how do we celebrate them? Let me be honest: in my own tradition, there is a real reticence among many Anglicans to separate All Saints and All Souls. But the reality in the vast majority of parishes is that we invite people to gather at this season to remember the dead.
In west Newcastle, that took the form of the Eucharist described above – a celebration where almost no one received Communion but everyone eagerly came to light candles and physically name the departed. When I was on the staff of a city centre cathedral, we celebrated a solemn choral Requiem (Fauré one year, Duruflé the next, Rutter after that), but at which again the lighting of candles after Communion had real power.
And All Souls’ Day walked hand in hand with vast memorial services where – working with local funeral directors – we invited people from across the city to come and remember, celebrate and pray for all those who had died.
In my current context, we place a big emphasis on the Eucharist of All Saints’ Day as the unitive celebration of the Church living and departed, and our umbilical connection with the saints in light. But even then, on 2 November we also invite all those for whom we have taken funerals over the last 18 months to come and celebrate a very simple liturgy in church, the climax of which is often very broken people, full of pain and tears, coming forward to light candles to pray for the dead.
The origins of All Saints and All Souls suggest a theological and pastoral priority for us: theological in the statement (today as much as in the eighth century) that we have a better word to say about death than the (neo-) pagan world around us. And pastoral not just because it comforts people to light candles on All Souls’ Day but because we are saying something definitive about our life in Christ.
What a heartening reminder, per courtesy of the Roman Catholic Newspaper ‘The Tablet’ in the U.K., of the need for the Church to ‘go out into the world’ (and also welcome those who come to us) bringing the love of God to all people – regardless of class, creed, status in the Church, gender, tribe, nation, of faith or of none – in order that God may bless them and remind them, too, of what the life, death, resurrection and glorification of Jesus Christ has gained for them – and for all who come to Him for succour in time of need.
This Anglican priest, Vicar of a Yorkshire parish church, ‘tells it how it is’ , in his faithful and loving ministry to both the believers, and those who do not yet know Jesus Christ, in his mission of intentional openness to all who come into his orbit – regardless of who they might be, of the parish or from beyond its borders. This, to my mind, is what truly Christian evangelism is really all about: openness. Openness to whomever God sends across our path. Not necessarily getting them to ‘sign up’ for parish membership (although some may want to do this), but rather, offering the ‘great love of God as revealed in the Son’ to ALL people. It may then be that God will call them to share in the life of Christ in Baptism – placing them ‘In Christ’.
The facts of life and death are part and parcel of everybody’s experience. Bereavement, especially, is a time of great need for most people of solace and reassurance that, if there is a God out there (and we known that there is); He will somehow understand their great loss and offer consolation. This is a very common point of contact with the Church – at the edges very often – but no less vital to the people who brave the possibility of rejection by the Church, but whose need is so great that they dare come to us.
In our parish of Saint Michael and All Angels, in Christchurch, New Zealand, this morning, I presided at the 9am Low Mass of All Souls Day, where a list of parishioners and their family members who have died was remembered in a solemn reading of their names, after the Homily. I wore white vestments – rather than the traditional purple or even black (of which St. Michael’s has several sets) – just like yesterday’s Mass for All Saints – simply because I feel mourners especially need to understand the hope we have in God’s great love for their departed loved ones, and that our prayers for them on this day have a special significance – for God’s gift of perfection in Christ – both for them and for our own faith journey. Our relationship with the departed is especially poignant today, as we rejoice with the Saints and our departed loved ones at the Eucharistic ‘Anamnesis’, the ‘Remembrance’, of the death and resurrection of Jesus in the Eucharist.
Saint Paul, in his epic epistle to Corinthians, in chapter 15, gives a wonderfully exciting account of God’s purpose for his faithful after the end of their life on earth. From verse 50 onwards, Paul gives a graphic description of what he believes to be our future in Christ: The prospect of this future – for those ‘in Christ’, must surely be the most loving of evangelistic encouragements for people to join the family in their faith journey:
“Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God and the perishable cannot inherit what lasts for ever. I will tell you something that has been a secret: that we are not all going to die, but we shall all be changed. This will be instantaneous, in the twinkling of an eye, when the last trumpet sounds. It will sound and the dead shall be raised, imperishable, and we shall be changed as well, because our present perishable nature must put on imperishability, and this mortal nature must put on immortality.”
Then, in his First Letter to the Thessalonians, Paul had this to say, from verse 13:
“We want you to be quite certain, brothers, about those who have died, to make sure that you do not grieve about them, like other people who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and that it will be the same for those who have died ‘in Jesus’. God will bring them with him. We can tell you this from the Lord’s own teaching, that any of us who are left alive until the Lord’s coming will not have any advantage over those who have died. At the trumpet of God, the voice of the archangel will call out the command and and the Lord himself will come down from heaven; those who have ‘died in Christ’ will be raised first, and then those of us who are still alive will be taken up in the clouds, together with them, to meet the Lord in the air. So we shall also stay with the Lord for ever. With such thoughts as these you should comfort one another.”
Ever since the first Commemoration of All Souls (the day after All Saints Day) by Odilo, the Abbot of Cluny, in 998, the Church Catholic has set aside this day to pray especially for the souls of the departed, who are presumed to be ‘resting in Paradise’ (to which place Jesus promised he would be escorted by the dying thief on the day of his crucifixion) awaiting the Second Coming of Christ – as described by St. Paul in the First Epistle to the Thessalonians.
“Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them! May they rest in peace, and rise with Christ in glory. Amen.”
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand