Third Sunday Before Advent
Last Sunday we observed All Saints’ Sunday in the morning and held our All Souls’ remembrance service in the afternoon. Between those two services of worship, we gathered in the crisp noonday sun to lay our friend Fi - Phaedra – to rest in our memorial garden. And today, we shall do the same for another dear friend and fellow pilgrim, Ron Carr. And then, next Sunday we shall gather here as one of the largest congregations of the year – the annual Remembrance Sunday service, at which shall lament the very existence of warfare, and remember with dignity, all who have served, so many who fell, and others who were injured or scarred, physically or emotionally, by conflicts past and present.
So it is at this season of the year – what our local poet John Keats called the season of mellow fruitfulness – at this season of the year there is the gentle mellowness of not only autumn colours but an autumnal sense of impending death and decay. And a loving remembrance of those whom we love but see no longer. It is, as the say, the season. ‘Tis not the season to be jolly – that is yet to come – no, rather now ‘tis the season to be melan – choly. For in the midst of autumnal life, we are in death – not so much the sudden shock or disbelieving pain of immediate bereavement, but rather the dull sensation of ongoing loss.
Often, we try to avoid, escape from, ignore or otherwise deny the presence of death in our lives. Death happens on the TV all the time, but many people are not touched personally by death for years at a time. It tends to be, but is not exclusively, generational. And yet, whatever one feels about the crescendo of Armistice remembrances in early November, the increased emphasis on looking back on the horrors of past conflicts, brings some kind of reality to those younger people – even those as old as me - who can barely imagine it. The mock horrors of the blasphemy of Halloween gives way to the real horror of warfare. And here we are today, in between the two.
So there is a fitting irony to the passages of scripture we have heard this morning. Working backwards – the gospel seems to be about marriage. It isn’t – it is actually about death. The epistle seems to be about judgement, but is actually about hope. And the first reading, from that notoriously miserable book about Job, is actually about resurrection. Job believed in resurrection, and Jesus certainly did. The Sadducees did not. They were sad, you see…
Seriously, they were the top brass of first century Palestinian life. They came from the leading families of the nation — the priests, merchants, and aristocrats. The high priests and the most powerful members of the priesthood were mainly Sadducees. They oversaw many formal affairs of the state. The Sadducees administered the state domestically, represented the state internationally, participated in the Sanhedrin, and often encountered the Pharisees there. Sometimes they collected the temple taxes - the ones that did not go to Rome, that is. They didn’t like the idea of resurrection, and used an absurd story to ask Jesus an awkward question about resurrection. They are fundamentalists who ask their question from a narrow, closed position. They just don’t get it: Jesus has been saying all along that with God things are different, we have to think outside the traditional religious, cultural, earthbound boxes. A man who marries seven wives is following Levite tradition in order to avoid childlessness, but they are also testing Jesus to see if he will deny that tradition. He avoids this trap. And that also made them sad, you see…
Yet, in Jewish tradition was the book of Job, in which, so long before Jesus, there is an expression of resurrection hope. It is immortalised in Handel’s Messiah – the beginning of Part Three with that wonderful soprano aria – ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’. It is so famous, so hopeful, so Christian that many people think it is a New Testament text. It isn’t, but it does express a longing for immortality and a hope of something after death. And it also gives us those famous and profound words:
O that my words were written down!
O that they were inscribed in a book!
O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock for ever!
These are the words that we read at every interment of ashes in our garden. We heard them last Sunday at noon, and we shall hear them again in an hour or so. As we lay our loved one’s remains to rest, we also lay a stone, on which their name – today – Ron – is engraved, engraved, as it were with an iron pen on a piece of rock forever. It’s what we do – it’s what others do, it’s what country graveyards and war cemeteries in France are full of – stones with names written on. And it’s what we do with war memorials: we record for posterity and identification, the names of our beloved dead. It is a kind of psychological necessity, a physical aide memoire, and an attempt to say, not only to ourselves but to anyone who will look: ‘this person mattered – and matters still to us – we love them still - look, here is their name’. And this is, in a sense it is what we are left with – their name. And the simple act of naming them, of engraving it on a stone or in a book, both gives a certain finality, but also keeps them with us, among us, for ever.
Nevertheless, we might also be reminded of that line from the book of Ecclesiasticus, 44:9:
“And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them.”
And these famous lines might in turn remind us of the fact that in Westminster Abbey, and in Paris too, are graves of an unknown soldier. Pride of place burials for someone, who in battle lost even their name. But who, in pride of place, represent all those thousands who not only have no memorial, but who have no grave.
It seems sad, of course, and it is sad even now as we lay our friends to rest in loving beds of death, with simple named gravestones in the beauty and holiness of our garden outside. These are sad times.
And yet, on another level, none of this matters. What matters more than the grief, the gratitude, the glory even, what matters more is the hope – the resurrection hope. The Sadducees were sad without it, but we are glad of it. And every gravestone outside, is not just a memorial engraved on a rock with lead, it is also a symbol and statement of resurrection hope. For these men and women are buried in that sure and certain hope, and witness to it in their very death and burial. For they, like us, are the saints, laid to rest, to rise in glory. Their gravestones are memorials, signs of love and gratitude, but they are also emblems of salvation and proclamations of the gospel. They are, as St Paul put it in our epistle reading: “…proclamations of the good news, so that we may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
And he goes on to say:
“So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter. Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.”
Such is the legacy of the saints, and is the basis of our comfort, our hope, and ultimately, our joy.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 6/11/2016