“They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (RCL All Saints Revelation 7:16-17)
In a year in which the focus of much of the world has been the spectre of death from the pandemic these are words of such comfort and raw acknowledgment of the fear that many of us have lived with, if not for ourselves, then for the vulnerable in our life. All Saint’s is the festival in which we remember not only the saints of our tradition with their amazing and far away long ago stories but the souls of everyday people who have died, our loved ones. We remember them not only to honour them but to declare our hope and confidence that they are at peace with God. We remember them because we cannot forget those we love no matter how long since we were last able to touch them or speak with them. We remember them because even death does not separate those who love.
Our readings this week remind us that for those who had died it is over, any suffering that there was, is finished – they hunger no more, they thirst no more, they are no longer struck with the heat of the day. They are at peace. Whatever troubled them is life is finished – God has wiped their eyes of every last tear. They are at peace. And even more than this they are taken into the heart of life eternal and abundant by God’s son who first made that journey himself through death to life. Those we have loved and lost are not only at peace they drink from the source of life itself.
It is we who suffer, not they, and our suffering is of course our missing of them and often our fears that they were in pain or distress at the time of their death. We are assured that whatever was happening at the time of their death is finished and they are now at peace. As one day we too shall be.
Jesus promised that those who mourn shall be comforted and that in this is blessing. How can the deep loss and pain of mourning be a blessing? Maybe in that in mourning we allow, we cannot help, our hearts being opened, torn open. And our hearts once opened up are the more vulnerable not only to suffering but to joy. The Sufi poet Khalil Gibran wrote it this way:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the self same well from which your laughter rises was often-times filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper the sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potters oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous look deep into your heart and you shall find
it is only that which has given you sorrow, that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful, look again in your heart,
and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Some say “Joy is greater than sorrow”, others say “Nay, sorrow is the greater”.
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits along with you at your board,
Remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.
Joy and sorrow, separation and reunion, mourning and hope – all are bound together in our human loving and faith in the divine nature of love and life.
The human experience is to live and die into a state of becoming more and more fully the children of God. John says it this way: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”
This Scripture can be read as if we are to purify ourselves by an act of will power and obedience and as a reward we will be granted revelation. But rather I think it should be read that it is the hope we allow ourselves to experience that does the purifying within us. It is the experience of hope that opens us to life eternal and abundant and the experience begins now with our hope.
Modern science in brain plasticity, that is the ability of the brain to change, has discovered that the way we think either reinforces or changes the very shape and functioning of our brain. If we live as people of hope we are changed, or purified, by that hope. That hope begins its transformative work now in our lives and will be fulfilled when we pass beyond the limitations of this part of life.
Let me share a simple personal example. I have now reached the age when I have had my first trip (and a few others) to accident and emergency imaging that I might be having a heart attack. Thank goodness I was not but for half an hour or so it was not clear. I remember being driven to hospital and my anxiety turning into a very simple intention to get there. I was in that strange state of heightened anxiety that felt very calm. I was certainly not thinking as usual once someone else took over my care. I did not pray or have any particular thoughts about my own situation except that over and over I found myself repeating the words of Compline, the last prayer of the day, “Into your hands Lord I commend my spirit”. It became a simple mantra that calmed me and sustained me.
All those years of praying the services of the day prayed within me when I did not have the presence of mind to do so. It is the hope we live by, that we practice, that changes us – purifies us. Not as reward but through the commitment itself we become people of hope. A hope in which we wrap the remembered lives of those we have loved. A hope which transforms us prayer by prayer, hymn by hymn, walk by walk. A hope which is the talk we talk and the walk we walk. A hope I trust will flourish most fully in the passing from this known life into union with the divine.
All Saints Day is a sombre day in the church but it is also ultimately a day of hope and celebration as we acknowledge the endless nature of love into which we have been born and into which we shall be reborn.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come and guide us home.