Sunday 1 November 2015
All Saints Day
St Mary’s Hadlow
Readings: Rev 21:1-6a, John 11:32-44
May I speak this morning in the name of God, +Father, Son and Holy Spirit . Amen.
Spiritually this is a very interesting time of year. The harvest has been well and truly gathered in, the clocks have gone back, the nights are drawing in rapidly and all around us nature is preparing to shut down for winter.
I don’t know about you but I think it has been a particularly beautiful Autumn and the array of colours on the trees has been stunning, especially when caught in the golden autumnal sunlight. But part of the beauty of those moments is that we know them to be fleeting and that the leaves are only yellow and red for a short while before they are whipped off the branches by the strengthening winds and become either next year’s compost or just slimy mush for the council lorry to sweep up.
And so every day the daylight retreats a little, the darkness advances a little and everything and everyone huddles into itself a little more. Some people tell me that they love the long winter evenings, and they may even be telling the truth, but many people, including me, find winter a real struggle simply because our bodies and our brains are stimulated by sunlight and need to sleep when it is dark. And if you think that hibernation is just for bears and hedgehogs there is interesting evidence that in rural Russia and even in isolated parts of France in the not too distant past that whole families would huddle up together for weeks at a time during the darkest and coldest part of winter, sleeping for much of the time and barely moving or eating.
Not to put too fine a point on it, this is the time of year when it feels as though life is retreating from the face of the earth and death is advancing and there may even be a residual primeval fear that this time the sun won’t come back again.
And if us modern people in our well lit and centrally heated homes are conscious of this shift from light to dark then how much more must this have affected our ancestors even in these islands for whom winter would have been a genuine challenge to survive.
Before Christianity came to Britain about 1500 years ago the people of these islands marked this time of year as Samhain. It was seen as a time when the dividing line between this world and the world of the dead and of the gods grew thin. Importantly the gods had to be placated with offerings to allow the people and the livestock to survive the winter and the souls of the dead were said to return to their homes seeking hospitality.
With the arrival of Christianity this liminal season of interaction between the living and the dead was adopted, adapted and transformed, although of course not for all. Some people are worried that the Christianisation of pre-existing festivals somehow undermines the genuine Christianity of what follows and I am sure you will all be aware that the Puritans banned Christmas Day because the date chosen owed more to the pagan calendar than to the bible.
But I don’t agree with that view. Jesus didn’t come into the world to condemn the world but to save the world through him. Jesus came as a light to lighten the gentiles and you don’t enlighten people by simply sweeping away all that has gone before and condemning it. Rather the light of Christ should illumine the dark corners of our world-view and change our perspective.
And so the arrival of Christianity sought to change the emphasis of Samhain from one the fear of darkness and death to one of remembering and praying for the dead but also of celebrating all the saints who have gone before us. Hence we wear today not the purple of penitence and mourning but the white and gold of celebration because we believe that does not have the final word and that the resurrection of Christ promises the trampling down of death.
But it will be clear, of course, that the Christianisation of Samhain has not been a total success. All Hallows Eve has become an increasingly commercialised celebration of death and horror. Now I am not going to become a new Puritan and say that children should not be allowed to enjoy themselves, far from it, but as a Christian it does bother me at a deep level that Halloween in its modern, orange, guise is sending the signal the death and evil are ultimately triumphant.
I said, somewhat jokingly, on my Facebook page that I hoped the enthusiasm for All Hallows Eve would translate into a packed Church this morning for the main event of All Hallows Day, because today we see the light of Christ penetrating into the darkness of death and we even see forward to the end of the story of God’s creation when death is banished forever.
The reading from John tells us the story of the raising of Jesus’ friend Lazarus from the tomb.
We are told in John’s gospel that Jesus was friends with the sisters Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus. At the start of chapter 11 the sisters sent a message to Jesus saying “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But rather than rushing to help a person we are told that he loved Jesus did something which appears a little odd – he stayed put for two days and said “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory.”
But this did not seem to be true because after two days Jesus told his disciples that Lazarus was dead and that they should set out to his home town.
This was obviously some distance away because by the time Jesus reached the place Lazarus had been dead and buried for four days – a day longer than Jesus himself was laid in the tomb.
Both Mary and Martha are obviously upset not only at the death of their brother but also at the slowness of Jesus to arrive – they both say to him separately “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”
Death seems to have had the final word and Jesus’ own friends seem to be waving their fists at him and saying – ‘where were you when we needed you – we asked for you and you did not come and now the one closest to us is dead.’
As you can imagine I see many people who are dealing with the death of a loved one and many people feel these same emotions but are sometime guilty about expressing them. Here we see that grief and anger are perfectly biblical responses to death and even Jesus himself weeps for the death of his friend, even though he knows what is coming next.
We then have an exchange which reflects, albeit through a glass darkly, the events to come on Easter Sunday.
Jesus asks: “Where have you laid him?” and he is led to the tomb of Lazarus. However, unlike the tomb of Jesus, this one is still firmly shut with the stone at the door – it had not been rolled away. When Jesus asks them to take away the stone it is clear that the sister’s pragmatism is their dominant feature as they are worried about the smell.
But Jesus insists, and when the stone is rolled away, Jesus prays to his father and then calls Lazarus from his tomb. And there then follows a scene which seems worthy of any Halloween film – the man Lazarus comes walking from his tomb, still bound in his grave clothes (unlike Jesus whose grave clothes were left neatly folded) and he must have looked like a low rent Mummy.
But, and this is the important difference, this is not a story of the dead raising to come and haunt the living – this is a story of life penetrating the tomb and overcoming death. Lazarus is not a dead man walking rather he is a man who has been brought back to life by Jesus, foreshadowing the resurrection of Jesus himself who foreshadows the resurrection of us all. From the Christian perspective the opening up of tombs and the rising of the dead is not a horror story, rather it is the promise that death does not have the final word.
Finally this wonderful story of Lazarus is then broadened by our reading from Revelation into the promise for us all. The story of God’s creation is brought to its conclusion by the creation of a new heaven and a new earth and God’s voice from the throne says to John:
“See the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them and they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more for the first things have passed away.”
Sisters and brothers in Christ we still do live in the days of the first things and mourning and crying and pain are still the everyday reality for many of us, especially those who have lost loved ones. But we are called to have faith – faith that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, faith that despite the darkness around us that death does not triumph and faith that at the end of all things we shall dwell in the loving, eternal presence of God with all the saints who have gone before us.