All Souls 2013
This service has been happening here for many years now – I inherited the tradition from my predecessor over ten years ago, and it was established by him. Some of you have been coming here for many years, each and every year coming to remember and light a candle. Others of you are perhaps here for the first time, and may have been surprised – and hopefully will be reassured - by what we do here today.
And yet this year there is a difference – a difference that is both big and small. For there is a name on our list today that is simply one among many, but because he was the vicar of this parish for over twenty years before me, he is someone whom many of you might remember, and for whom every member of the regular congregation would want to give thanks and remember before God. Which is of course what each and every one of us does here today, for all those whom we love but see no longer.
The Reverend John Sampford died last month and was given a beautiful funeral in Chester Cathedral on 10th October. His name is on our list, as are hundreds of others. This is why this year is both significant and insignificant at the same time.
And it is in that significant insignificance that we may all find hope and comfort, even understanding of what it is to die and be changed by and through the love of God. For the death of anyone whom we love is devastating, even if we do not expect it to be at the time. Sometimes we may even feel relief when someone dies, especially if they suffer from drawn out, painful, mentally debilitating illness. And yet, releasing as their passing may be, for them and for us, we still miss them – of course we do. And it is not so much the person who died on the day they died that we miss – if you see what I mean – it is the whole person, whose whole life and emotional makeup has gone. As the date of death recedes into the past, our memories become narrower, fuller and more focused. The person we miss is not the person who died, but the person who lived. And we can be caught out by that when we are not paying attention, when we are doing something, well, something, insignificant. The life no longer lived, of which residual memories remain, that life comes crashing in on us, interrupting the fragile equilibrium we are trying to maintain. For some, this kind of experience can be very painful, for others it can seem like a communion – a kind of encounter, two spirits meeting on the stairway to heaven.
These are mysteries we can never solve, prove or dismiss. And insignificant as they may seem, they are not, for they affect us deeply.
The poet Keith Douglas wrote a poem called ‘Simplify me when I’m dead’, in which he begins and concludes with the lines:
‘Remember me when I’m dead
Simplify me when I’m dead’.
It’s a war poem, but even so, those two lines are telling for us all. For what he writes as a request reflects what actually happens. As time goes by, we look at our loved ones as though through an inverted telescope– as we look they seem further away, receding into the distance of time. Detail is less distinguishable – simplification occurs. Only what is most significant can be discerned at distance. Strength of character, emotional traits, sense of humour, love of music, sport or family. Simple, strong things.
Like faith, hope, and love. These are what remain – and the greatest of them is love. Everything else that may seem significant fades in vision, until we are left with the simple significance of love – and it is that love which does not, and cannot die for as long as it remains with us. Many worry about legacies in our complex day and age, but the only legacy that matters is the legacy of love.
Many say that when we die we change, although it is perhaps better to say that when we die we are changed. Change is something that happens to us, not something we do ourselves. To die is to be changed. And when we die not only does change happen to us, it happens to all those around us.
We may not know, here and now, what actually happens to us when we die, but we all know what happens to us when someone else dies. And what happens to each of us is unique – we all react, adapt, change, differently. The reaction seems insignificant when we gather together, for we are all unique individuals among many – and this can feel very isolating. No-one else understands – no-one loved him or her like I did, no-one is going through, what I am going through. It is not insignificant at all – it is deeply significant – and it changes us.
Our apparent insignificance amidst the thousands of people who become bereaved each day is itself significant.
And that is because we have a God who does not deal in insignificance. He is not like a multinational company, or a Malthusian Geographer, or a Supermarket seller, who deals in masses not individuals, people not persons. Each one of us is loved by God, whether we are alive or dead. And that is very significant indeed.
For not only is being loved – by God and by others - the most significant thing there can be, it also connects us, irreparably, with those whom we still love, and who still love us in a realm we cannot see.
As we light candles today, we remember before God, in love, those for whom this is the only way we can still show them we love them. We light lights of love, and the small warmth we feel when we do so is not simply the faint heat of burning wax.
Some of you have been doing this for years. And you might remember my predecessor John standing here inviting you to come and light candles and offering thoughts far deeper and more profound than mine, I’m sure. And today, his name is on the list. And one day, I vaguely hope - my own name will be. All of us will be - this is how it is – we come and go, and we leave our marks of love as we depart for the resurrection realm of eternal love.
We should draw comfort from that – for it may seem small and insignificant, but actually, it is both everything - and all - that matters. Which makes our presence here very significant indeed.
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 03/11/13