Feast of All Souls
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Among our earliest evidence for what we might recognize as “religion” are the burial practices of our hominid ancestors in the Middle and Upper Paleolithic. Certainly, by about 50,000 years ago, our forebears were burying grave goods with their dead, whose bones were often decorated with red ochre and other natural dyes.
[Incidentally, our Museum of Natural History is in possession of one of the oldest examples of Western European ceremonial burial, dating back 33,000 years. The “Red Lady” of Paviland was buried with jewels made of seashells and mammoth tusks, among other precious things. Go check him out the next time you’re there. I say him because the Red Lady turns out to be a man who died in is mid-20s.]
Consistent with such archeological findings, many anthropologists argue that beliefs and rituals about death form the very foundation of religion as we know it today. Ghosts, the say, came before gods; crypts before cathedrals. Indeed, even today, ancestor worship has a good claim to being the world’s most popular religious act.
As a child, growing up in a modern Chinese family in Malaysia, ancestor worship was my only religious act. Much like good anglo-Catholics incidentally, we too had incense on such occasions. And not only did we have sacrificial offerings of food and drink (not quite like the Mass, but not entirely unrelated), but we also burned various effigies representing everyday objects: anything from shirts and wristwatches to cars and mansions, and even gold ingots. This was our way of expressing our love and care for the dead. In comparison, modern Western Christian devotion to the dead—including the saintly dead—seems a low key affair. Indeed, my grandmother’s objection to Christianity was that if she were to convert, all she would have to eat in the afterlife would be candles (and maybe flowers).
If there is such a thing as a Christian doctrine of death, it is that death is an outrage. It is not, contrary to the popular attempt to sugarcoat things, a “natural part of life”, but the very annihilation of life. And insofar as life is—as the Book of Genesis insists—a good thing, then its cessation is, ipso facto, a bad thing.
It is, most obviously a very bad thing for us, who are not yet dead. Some people we love are dead, and despite the well-intentioned platitudes of ostensibly pastoral figures around us, this is very much not OK, nor will it really ever be. Some people we love are dead, and it’s awful. It’s not awful all the time, of course, but once in a while, when we are reminded—on anniversaries, or when we find an old picture, or when we visit an old haunt—the awfulness might come back, and that is a truthful feeling.
Death is also, in a different way, a very bad thing for them, for those who have died. It is very different for them because, well, being dead, they don’t experience the badness: it’s not so much that they don’t miss us terribly, more that they don’t know what they’re missing at all. Perhaps on the principle that “ignorance is bliss”, the dead are better off than the living, but this is a dubious principle indeed. Upon death they—as we all will—lose everything, including themselves. There is, in that sense, no them, just as when we die, there will be no us. Death is the ultimate deprivation.
Religion, many people think, is meant to provide solace for the bereaved, and to mitigate our fear of death. In Christianity, talk of heaven is, we are told, supposed to comfort us, by dissipating both the unknowability and the finality of death. We believe in “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting” and therefore, as that poem now ubiquitous at funerals goes, “death is nothing at all…[the dead have] only slipped away to the next room”.
This all seems uncontroversial enough. After all, Christ has, in his death, indeed defeated death. The Christian faith is an Easter faith, a resurrection faith, in which we proclaim with confidence that Christ has robed death of its sting, and the grave of its victory.
However, the Christian faith is also the faith of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, with his anguished prayer; and on the Cross, with his cry of dereliction. Death does not, for Jesus, seem like “nothing at all”, a mere relocation.
Furthermore, there is something fundamentally misleading even in the assertion that the Christian faith is a resurrection faith and also a faith of Christ’s passion and death, as if passion, death and resurrection were independent and separable phenomena. But the resurrection of Jesus is not best thought of as one event that occurs after another, that is his death. Nor is it really a response to the death of Jesus, a sort of magical CPR, so much as the consequence—the unfolding, better yet, the meaning—of what happened in his death. What happened in the death of Jesus is the perfect and selfless and total (in other words, the miraculous) outpouring of the love of a human being for God, and at the same time because of who Jesus is, the perfect and selfless and total outpouring of the love God for us. To believe in the resurrection is nothing other than to believe that we—and those whom we love, but see no more—can be caught up in this perfect love between the Father and the Son. In other words, it is to believe that, we will, in the end, be in God.
This is, I think, not a sentimental view of death and the life everlasting. It is, in some ways, the opposite. There is no dispelling of mystery here, no theory of life after death, no comforting image of reunion with our loved ones gone before us. If there is any sense at all in which we will be with them again, it is in that we will all together be with and in God. There is really little more to be said about this, but then Christian doctrine is less about saying, and more about doing.
The Christian doctrine of death takes death seriously, refusing to offer illusions that it is inconsequential, either because it is a “natural” part of life or because it is a temporary state of affairs. And this, I think, allows us to mourn our dead properly: to grieve with honest intensity. This is an important corrective in a world that is obsessed with happiness, and treats grief as an impediment to productivity.
This insistence on the finality and tragedy of death is also an affirmation of the importance of life. Jesus’s consistent response to the sick was to heal them; and to the dead, to raise them up. If there is no “pie in the sky when we die”, then we had better get along with the business of ensuring that nobody starves to death here and now.
This work is, for the Christian, because of her resurrection faith, essentially an act of hope, and not one of mere desperation: it is what it means for her to “look for […] the life of the world to come”, the new and abundant life made possible by the self-giving love of God in Christ, that is the very life of the Triune God.
The Christian faith cannot be mistaken, therefore, for a nihilistic faith. But our hope is not in some particular and particularly fantastical post-mortem scenario, but in the eternal God who will, in the end, put all things to right, a work that—because of Christ’s work on the Cross—has already begun and is happening even here and now, in your lives and even in mine, and in the lives of all those who have gone before us.
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.