|The Churches of||Fenny Bentley||Parwich||Thorpe||Tissington|
The Commemoration of the Departed
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There is much about life that we don’t understand. There is even more about death that we don’t understand. Why, for example, do some people die young – while others live to well beyond their statutory three score years and ten. When someone dies, doctors can normally tell the immediate cause of death. But they can’t always tell us why that particular cause has proved fatal at that particular time. There seem, then, to be certain things about life and death that we just have to accept, however difficult this may be.
As we commemorate today those of our families and friends who have died, as well as other people of this parish, our thoughts may be taken back to the moment when we had to say farewell. Sometimes that may have been a long-expected moment of parting – a moment which may even, for some, have been what people sometimes call ‘blessed release’. In other instances we may be reminded of the suddenness and brutality of bereavement … and I can think of a number of people of our parishes who have died well before they reached old age.
When I was young, I used to be afraid – not so much of dying young, but of dying before I had done anything to make my life worthwhile. As we grow older, we should therefore be thankful that we have had the chance to make something of life – that all the potential and hope which lies hidden within the young child has at least had some opportunity of being realised and fulfilled, even if there are things about our lives which we would have done differently if we had our time over again. In this spirit of thankfulness for our own lives, however, we should on commemoration of All Souls remember especially in our prayers all those who have died young, and all those who grieve for children and others who have died before their due time. It is particularly traumatic, of course, to outlive your children.
Things were not always thus, however. If you go around churchyards and look closely at the older gravestones, you will be struck by how many children are commemorated. There is amongst the gravestones of this county dating from the 19 th century and earlier a noticeable number where the child or children have died before their parents. There is a particularly moving monument in the chancel of Fenny Bentley church, which commemorates a husband and wife and nine of their twelve children, several of whom died in childhood. Fatal childhood illnesses used to be far more common than they are now – and poor diet and poverty could also increase childhood mortality. Why, then, does God allow it? Wouldn’t life be much easier for all concerned if we had a guaranteed life span?
Hear some words by a man called Anthony Thorold: “Until our Master summons us, not a hair on our heads can perish, not a moment of our life be snatched from us. When he sends for us, it should seem but the message that the child is wanted at home’. We can never tell when our work on earth may be completed – and we can certainly never know when God may want us back home – and why. Which may help if we find it difficult to let go of those of our families and friends who have died – if we find it difficult to release them into eternity. They are not ours to hold onto for ever; we may cherish their memories, and give thanks for their lives among us, but they are ultimately God’s, not ours. And so while we do not pray for them – because their eternal destiny is not affected by our prayers – we do remember with thanksgiving all that they gave to us, and all that they gave to others.
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Their eternal destiny … this day in the Church’s year is also important in that it puts our fleeting lives here on earth into a fuller perspective. There is such a tendency today for people to focus on the present, on the ‘now’, at the expense not only of the future but especially at the expense of eternity. There was a time when people took it for granted, far more than many do now, that our task here on earth is to prepare ourselves for the life to come – and that one’s eternal destiny is determined by the choices we make and the paths we tread through life here on earth. I think that we need to get the balance right again between living a good life on earth for its own sake and taking due care to prepare for the world to come – for the time when we will meet our Maker and learn what he has made of our lives.
As well as helping us to get our own priorities right, remembering to take thought for our eternal destiny reminds us that it is not up to us to make judgements about the eternal destiny of others. As Thomas Gray put it, in his ‘Elegy written in a country churchyard’ , when speaking of those who had died in poverty, without having the opportunity to achieve much in the eyes of the world: ‘Let not ambition mock their useful toil; their homely joys and destiny obscure; nor grandeur hear with a disdainful smile, the short and simple annals of the poor’. God has his purposes for each one of us - if we can’t always see clearly what his purposes are for ourselves, as we strain our eyes to see through the mists that swirl around us, so much the less should we make judgements as to whether others have fulfilled the purposes God set for them to strive for in this life.
But what we do know, if we take the Christian faith seriously, and believe what has been handed down to us through Holy Scripture and the teachings of the Church, is that the gates of heaven were flung open by the death and resurrection of Jesus. As the poet John Milton said, ‘Death is (now) the golden key that opens the palace of eternity.’ Or as St Peter put it, in the reading which we heard earlier, ‘God has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you’. That is why it is so important to believe in him, to follow his teachings, and to see him as our guide to heaven.
Death, then, may be the key to eternity; it has also been likened to a horizon – a horizon being but the limit to our sight. At present we can see only as ‘through a glass darkly’, as St. Paul put it – meaning as reflected in a clouded mirror – but after death – when we have gone beyond that horizon - we shall see God face to face. Our loved ones who have died have already gone beyond that horizon, preparing the way for us; we have had to entrust them to God, and must continue in that spirit of trust, in the knowledge that he is both just and faithful. And so once more let us thank God for all those who were close to us, trusting him and remembering his promise of eternal life for all those who follow the ways of his Son Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.