Monday, November 2, 2009

All Souls' Day Thoughts

November 2, though officially named the “Commemoration of All Faithful Departed” by the Church, is more commonly known by its old name: All Souls’ Day. The history of this commemoration is given in brief here, and some additional prayers for use on this day are located here.

There are many traditions around the Christian Church connected with this day. Most focus on offering prayers for the dead in Christ throughout the ages – linking the saints of the past with those of today very much in the New Testament understanding of sainthood. This day also connects the "big picture" of our faith with the personal side, the individual losses we bear. This is partly why it has a particular power, felt mostly by those who have felt death's capacity to distort and diminish life.

On All Souls’ Day proper, St. Timothy's usually offers two liturgies: one for those whose schedules and abilities permit a daylight observance, and another for parishioners needing an evening service. Both liturgies are Prayer Book Requiems – Eucharists offered to God in commemoration of the dead in Christ. The lessons from Scripture and the special prayers used are from the Burial liturgies, with one special addition: the reading of the necrology or memorial list, which includes all those names members of our parish (and others, as well) have asked to be read at the altar, and those who have been buried from this parish this last twelvemonth. When possible (i.e. when it isn’t a driving rain outside), we then make our way to the Memorial Garden chanting a Litany of the Saints for graveside concluding prayers. For us the grave is not the end of the journey, but the portal through which we all must pass into that "larger life" awaiting us with Christ in the Kingdom.

There are many theological reasons for this day: the centrality of the Communion of Saints in the Catholic Faith is deeply affirmed, the victory of Christ’s death and resurrection is shown forth by denying death’s power to separate all members of His Body in a final and decisive way, and a positive sense of connection between the “Church Militant” (those struggling against evil in this world) and the “Church Triumphant” in heaven is drawn – as shown so powerfully in the Book of Revelation.

Yet it is not only formal theology that counts in faith: the pastoral element, as an application of the “Faith once delivered to the saints” is also highly significant. On All Souls’ we experience deep emotions: loss, sorrow, anger, regret… the very stuff of our fallen and broken world. Yet, we do so in the embrace of the Gospel: the story of God’s victory over these things is the foundation for this openness to exploring a territory fraught with unseen dangers – yet a territory we must traverse as disciples of Our Lord. Because He has been here before, He knows the way. His victory is ours, but we must take His yoke upon us, and learn to share in His victory even as He has shared in our sufferings.

So, All Souls’ is at turns a somber, tearful, peaceful, comforting, and assuring day. I have seen many people break down in healing ways on these days; I have also experienced the unique way God performs soul-surgery in the liturgy – drawing connections, kindling hope, and shining light where darkness had reigned. This is a quiet day, really, but a day of profound significance. It is one of the great blessings of living in this tradition, respectful of the teaching of the ancient Church and the limits of what we can say. For this teaching and practice, I am deeply thankful.
May they rest in peace!
And, for an Anglican “take” on the prayers of the saints for us, here is a document from the Church of England which well describes our “official position” on this matter:
It is impossible to declare that departed saints cannot hear our prayers, and we therefore must not condemn as impossible direct address to them as private practice, provided this be to ask for their prayers whether for ourselves or for others; anything other than this seems to us both perilous and illegitimate. But also it is impossible to have well-grounded assurance that the saints hear us, so that direct address to them may well be thought inappropriate in the official worship of the Church. On the other hand, such formal expression within the liturgy of our fellowship with them in prayer as is contained, for example, in the Collect – “O God, the King of Saints” – appended to the Scottish Liturgy represents a true balance of thought and is a legitimate enrichment of worship
Doctrine in the Church of England, published in 1938

An All Souls' Day Prayer (suitable for use throughout the year):
O God, the King of saints, we praise and glorify your holy Name for all your servants who have finished their course in your faith and fear: for the blessed Virgin Mary; for the holy patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs; and for all your other righteous servants, known to us and unknown; and we pray that, encouraged by their examples, aided by their prayers, and strengthened by their fellowship, we also may be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light; through the merits of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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