A sermon preached by Canon Tom Clammer, Precentor
Let us pray:
Support us, O Lord,
all the day long of this troublesome life,
until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes,
the busy world is hushed,
the fever of life is over
and our work is done.
Then, Lord, in your mercy grant us a safe lodging,
a holy rest, and peace at the last;
through Christ our Lord.
I don’t know about you, but one of my pet peeves, one of the things that really makes you want to punch someone in the face, though of course I don’t because that kind of behaviour is discouraged in precentors, is when people say “I know how you feel.” Do you recognise that? The moments when you have been the victim of some tragedy, perhaps a bereavement, and people around you, seeking no doubt to be helpful and supportive tell you that they know how you feel. I think second on the list of unhelpful comments made around bereaved people is probably “it will get better.” Again, almost always said out of love, and I am quite sure that I have been guilty of saying that to people myself, but almost certainly unhelpful, and in at least one sense untrue.
Bereavement doesn’t get better. It gets different.
I am very conscious that all of you gathered here this evening, on this all souls Day, are carrying into this Cathedral a particular set of memories, thanksgivings, of regrets, and of hurts. And the first thing I want to say to you is that I don’t know how you feel. I don’t know how you feel. I know how I feel. This is an interesting all souls Day for me because for the first time in several years I have put a name on the list of the departed for the first time. Most of the handful of names that I ask the vergers to put on the list each year are people who have been dead for some while, but my friend, my mentor, and my ordaining Bishop Michael Perham died in Easter week this year, after an unexpected and swift diagnosis, decline and death from a brain tumour. I’m carrying him, amongst others, into the service, and it feels awful. I miss him, there is a big chunk of my past that he and I shared that I now have no connection with other than my own memories. I know how I feel this evening, but you don’t. And you know how you feel this evening, and I don’t.
That is not of course to say that we are alone. The whole point of community, community of any sort but perhaps the church in particular, is that we do this thing together. We are all gathered here together in this Cathedral, actually in a part of the cathedral which forces us to look at each other tonight. And we all share common experiences. There are of course common threads in bereavement. So I know a little bit about how you might be feeling. Because I know about the emptiness. I know about the regrets. I know about the pain.
But I don’t how you feel. And that is why this service takes the form that it does. This service is not a counselling session. Counselling is brilliant, I have had it myself and I strongly recommend it. This service is not a funeral either. Though it bears some of the family likeness to that important rite of passage.
This service is a Eucharist. And it is full of symbols. Symbols are good. Symbols help us to negotiate the territory. Standing behind me is the Paschal candle. The Easter candle. It is actually a shadow of its former self because it has burned in this Cathedral so often since we lit it in the shadows of Easter morning, when the first hints of the possibility that death is not the end were whispered in the dark. There will be names read in this service. Now the names are also symbols. It actually doesn’t matter whether or not the name of your loved one is read aloud tonight. The reason why we do it is because it’s helpful to name things. It is helpful to remember, to speak into the silence the personal name of someone we love, and lost. It helps to keep the memory alive, it helps to remind us, - because of course God doesn’t need reminding -, but it helps to remind us of our duty to be the living biography of the people whose lives have intersected and intertwined with ours.
But as I just said, God knows your heart. God does know how you feel. So when we come to that part of the service where we read the names, the clergy facing East, the symbolic direction of the rising Sun, the resurrected Christ, the dawn of the darkness, facing the Easter candle, the symbol of the promise that Christ is always here and that we are never alone - when those names are read it doesn’t matter if all the people in your life whom you have lost are not named. It doesn’t matter if you just remembered someone, or you were too nervous to commit that name to a piece of paper and pass it to the vestry. Name that person in your heart, remember them, and know that God remembers them too.
Because this service is actually not just for the people that we can remember either. This Cathedral church has been here for 800 or so years, and the stones of this place have been hallowed by prayers, tears and laughter uttered by countless thousands of people who we will never know, but they are part of the story, they are part of God’s family, and we symbolically remember them, knowing that God actually does.
I said a few moments ago that this is a service of symbols. And the greatest of those symbols is the sacrament, the bread and the wine of the Eucharist.
Why do funerals matter, why does All Souls Day matter? Because people matter. Christians are not duellists, Christians are not people who believe that the mind and spirit are fantastic, and the body is an inconvenient vehicle. The body is extraordinary. I have as much reason to resent my body as anybody else here I guess, but actually the body is wonderful. It’s not an accident that we live these finite, mortal lives. On Ash Wednesday when Bishop Michael Perham preached in this Cathedral what in fact was his final sermon, it was I who imposed the ash on his forehead. And I said to him “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” And that is what happened, some seven weeks later. But that wasn’t all that I said. I said “turn away from sin, and be faithful to Christ.”
And here is the key to beginning to muddle our way through how it feels to be mortal, fragile, alone, broken. And it is of course Christ. Christ who died. Christ who died. The central symbol, the sacrament of this service, is broken bread and out-poured wine. The body and the blood of God.
I don’t know how you feel, but Christ does. And what is offered to us tonight is the promise that we are never alone. Those fears and dreads that we experience in the silent watches of the night are real, and they have to be faced, but we do not face them alone, ever. We are surrounded by the irresistible and glorious vanguard of Christ. Look at the carved angels surrounding you on the choir stalls this evening. They are another symbol of the truth that this building is full of angels, full of holiness, full of forgiveness, and love, and grace, and, actually, hope.
This evening, this service, is without doubt a difficult one. And it is right that it is a place where we can cry, where we can sit quietly with our feelings of loss, whether they are terribly raw, or no less real but have been changed, made different, by time.
But this evening is also pregnant with hope. Because the sort of God who does know us, who does know you, who knows how you feel also says to you, not “this will get better”, but this will get different. That hole that is left in your heart by the loss of the person or people named aloud or silently this evening, that hole is not filled, that person is not replaced, but although we cannot see it yet, it is shining with glory, because Christ is risen from the dead, and there are angels here, and everything will be made new.
The task for us this evening, the task for us every day, is to learn to begin to dare to believe that that is true. And it is better if we do that together. But we do it together, not knowing how each other feels, but knowing that we are together on the journey, of which our pain and sorrow is a vital part, but a journey that leads to a garden, and an empty tomb, and light such as the darkness can never overcome.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!