November 2, 2014

Homily for the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls), 2014, Year A

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

The Bustle in a House
The Morning after Death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon Earth –

The Sweeping up the Heart
And putting Love away
We shall not want to use again
Until Eternity –

I often quote this poem of Emily Dickinson as the best description of what we go through in a time of mourning. We have all had this experience.

As we remember today all those who have gone before us, we are aware of an ever growing store of Love that we shall not want to use again until we are reunited with those we have lost.

Anyone who deals with those who grieve knows there is little we can say to ease their pain. Fortunately, the best that can be said has been said, in the Scriptures and by many poets.

From the Bible, we have in today’s readings at least two well known comforting texts. The first is, “The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them... They are in peace.” Not surprisingly, this is the text most commonly selected from among the options for the Mass of Christian Burial.

Then there is the 23rd Psalm, where we read, in the incomparable King James version: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

Many New Testament passages offer the same hope:

1 Corinthians 15: 51-52: “Behold, I tell you a mystery. We shall not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed, in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” (I wish I could quote the whole of chapter 15. It is magnificent.)

John 16:22: “You are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.” These words were spoken by Jesus to his Apostles at the Last Supper, but it is easy to apply them to the Christian experience of grief in general.

The list of “favorite” texts goes on and on.

Another poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, was not a Christian. We sense the difference in a deeply moving poem called “Dirge without Music.” It begins:

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

And the last stanza reads:

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

This is far from what St. Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 4:13: “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope.”

Grief, yes, of course. Anyone who tells others they are wrong to grieve but should be happy that their loved one is in heaven, has not grasped the Bible’s deep understanding and acceptance of humanity.

Grief, yes, but not hopelessness. We do not grieve “like the rest, who have no hope.”

“We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him,” writes St. Paul to the Romans.

And so death ultimately has no power over us, not now, not ever. We cry out, again in Paul’s words:

Death is swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting? (1 Cor. 15:54-55)

Returning to the poets, I conclude with a text from John Donne, which I use often at funerals, and which I quoted also in my homily last Easter.

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;...
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

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