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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

From death into life (Commemoration of All Souls)

We celebrate the Commemoration of All Souls on Sunday this year, a rare treat for us. Most Catholics attend funerals fairly rarely (I guess that’s good, at least in a sense—for the potential honorees ☺), so the liturgy from Mass for the Dead is a pretty big unknown. Priests and musicians attend a lot of funerals, I suppose in urban and suburban parishes with larger constituencies like mine they’re almost commonplace. I would guess that St. Anne’s has about eighty funerals a year. I know places with different demographics that have a lot more than we do. And I feel like I’m at a funeral mass constantly, though that’s more a function of my attitude than of reality.

It’s good to think about final things. In this middle third of autumn, when the Illinois earth is getting serious about preparing for winter, it’s natural around here to start thinking about death. The days are noticeably shorter, and they’re going to be getting a lot shorter soon, when we go off daylight savings time shortly after midnight Sunday morning. So we have All Hallows’ (Saints) Day on November 1 to remember our forebears in the Christian faith, the saints by whose witness and prayer we ourselves know the faith today, and we have All Hallows’ E’en  on October 31 to help us deal with our fear of the unknown that surrounds death, and we have November 2, All Souls’, to remember the unnamed millions who have gone before us and many of whose names are forgotten, to bring them to mind, to pray for them, and to ask for their prayer as well. The Sunday readings during the last two or three Sundays of Ordinary time also turn to final things, “judgment” (though I think we need to think about what that might mean in the context of a non-violent, non-coercive agape God), life, death, and empire all become part of the patchwork of images during the last weeks of the year. And the first Sunday of Advent does, too, but looking at the mystery of creation through yet another lens, that is, what is yet to be, and how it might arise from what is.

At many funerals, and the last time we celebrated All Souls on Sunday, we used the reading from Wisdom ("The souls of the just are in the hand of God...") which dates from the Hellenistic period of Judaism, probably as late as the 2nd or 1st century BCE, from the period following the persecutions suffered in Judea at the hands of monstrous Seleucid emperor Antiochus Epiphanes IV. This marvelous passage is one of the earlier passages in the Hebrew scriptures to allude to the possibility of the bodily resurrection of the dead, a tenet of Christian Nicene creed, and here, as in the book of Daniel and Job, the possibility is raised by the Jewish philosophers and theologians as a necessary outcome of divine justice. Since the Jewish martyrs, like the Maccabees, were cut down in the prime of their physical life, with so much possibility still within them, it must behoove a just God, they reasoned, to restore their bodies to them at some future time. I suppose there are other possibilities, but when one assumes the Jewish mindset that humans are not spirits trapped inside bodies but bodies filled with divine breath, this makes as much sense as anything we believe about the afterlife. Interestingly, it is from this kind of spiritual awakening (or exercise) that the belief started to rise that life might go on beyond the grave. Belief in the resurrection of the body preceded belief in the resurrection, or for that matter, the existence, of a soul outside the body.


This time we are using the reading from Revelation as the first reading. I have little hope that the political implications of death and resurrection, the matrix of apocalypses like Revelation, will get spelled out two days before the midterm elections, but for those who have hope for the demise of the overfed Beast of campaign rhetoric, "a new heaven and a new earth" will sound like a good place to start. Revelation celebrates those who have made their choice for the reign of God against the rallied forces of Caesar and died for their allegiance. It promises a new world where death's power will be reversed, and there will be no more tears and mourning. The forces of death today sometimes wrap themselves in the symbols of a god, and use language describing death-dealing in terms of good and evil. Revelation helps us remember that it is ever so. All death, not just the death of martyrs, though,  seems like a defeat. Revelation assures us that a reversal is coming; life is changed, not ended.

The second reading we’re using at St. Anne’s is Romans 6, which every paschally-obsessed Catholic knows is the epistle for the Easter Vigil. At how many Easter Vigils (well, at least 30) and at how many more institutes of the North American Forum on the Catechumenate (probably another three or four dozen) have I heard these words, and I never get tired of them, and I wish that I would hear more confident and solid preaching on their hopeful and faith-sustaining words:
Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus 
were baptized into his death?
 We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, 
so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead 
by the glory of the Father, 
we too might live in newness of life. 

For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, 
we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.
We know that our old self was crucified with him, 
so that our sinful body might be done away with, 
that we might no longer be in slavery to sin.
 For a dead person has been absolved from sin.
 If, then, we have died with Christ,
 we believe that we shall also live with him.
We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more;
 death no longer has power over him. 


Your mileage may vary: there are many different options for readings on All Souls’ Day. It is this sense that we are baptized into the death of Jesus, and furthermore, that “when we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes” that is the heart of the Christian message. Somehow, in his death, Jesus is the icon of the invisible God. Yes, in his resurrection too, but we have to deal with this whole business of death and resurrection. We believe that we are baptized into the death of the Lord, and that in baptism, our “old self” dies, and we are made a new creation. New. From scratch. We look the same, just like the Eucharist looks like bread and wine, but it, and we, are ontologically different. Once, we were no people. Now, we are God’s people. Once, we were dead to sin. Now, given the gift of God’s holy spirit, we come up from the water and are reborn in the very image of Christ. Stamped with the paschal mystery, our genetic code rewritten by the Spirit of God.

A former associate at St. Anne's, Fr. Jim Hurlbert, used to call attention to this aspect of baptismal faith at every funeral he celebrated: the Christian died on the day of baptism, and rose again in Christ. "Death no longer has any power" over the Christian, because in baptism, we understand that we are immersed in the very source of life, in the One who has nothing to do with death. Others, including our current pastor, often make reference to this same reality. In the end, Christ draws us into the intimacy that he shares with Abba. The amazing part is that "the way" to this shared intimacy is available to us here and now, when we choose to live for Christ.

We can sleep right through that. We can just stay dead. Or, by celebrating the mystery of All Souls’ day, maybe we can waken to life, and become who we are.

Here is the music we’re singing at St. Anne’s, most of it is familiar from our funeral and paschal repertoire.

Gathering: Litany of the Saints (Becker), interspersed with the names of the parish deceased. In the adapted entrance rite Sunday, we are using a display of candles representing those who have died from the community this year as a sort of catafalque in the center of the worship space. While the litany of saints is sung and names are read, the candles (and paschal candle and altar) will be incensed. This is part of our annual All Souls' ritual in the parish.
Psalm 23: Shepherd Me, O God (Haugen). "Though I should wander the valley of death, I fear no evil for you are at my side." There is probably no more beloved prayer among us at the hour of death than the twenty-third psalm. Marty's beautiful setting, sung at so many tens of thousands of funerals since it was written more than 25 years ago, is the setting we most frequently, though not exclusively by any means, use.
Preparation of the Gifts: New Jerusalem (Cooney). Echoing the paschal faith and light-in-the-darkness hope of the first reading, my song "New Jerusalem" uses the language and imagery of Revelations 21 and 22 with the music of the American folk song "Shanadore" (Shenandoah) to evoke the beauty of a home to which we're headed, remembering, though we haven't really seen it yet.
Communion: The Cloud's Veil (Lawton). Our introduction to the music of Liam Lawton came early in the years we first lived in Illinois, when Terry was asked to sing with him on his first GIA recording, The Cloud's Veil. Liam has become something of a phenomenon in the Irish music scene, hardly limited to church music, but his music and ministry has helped to reinvigorate the church there at a time of tested faith and disillusionment. Like "On Eagle's Wings," the images of "Cloud's Veil" are appropriate at weddings and funerals alike, and remind us of God's presence to us in good times and bad.
Recessional: I Know That My Redeemer Lives (Haas). David's setting of the adapted text from the book of Job is a favorite of mine with its strong, confident melody perfectly suited to the recurring refrain, "On the last day, I shall rise again."