Requiem Mass, Sorrow and Rejoicing
All Souls 4 November 2018 St John the Baptist, Holland Park, by The Very Revd Mark Bonney, Dean of Ely
“Very truly I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment but has passed from death to life.” (John 5:24)”
At Ely Cathedral we have a small group of ecumenical Canons who we call Etheldreda Canons – after St Etheldreda the Queen and Abbess who founded the first monastery at Ely in 673. The most eminent of our Etheldreda canons is the Roman Catholic, recently retired professor of Ecclesiastical History, Eamon Duffy. One of his more well known books is called Stripping the Altars and in it he examines lay people’s experience of religion in mid-16th century England – and varied and colourful it certainly was. Being something of Roman Catholic revisionist Duffy challenges the popular view that the ordinary person’s religion at that time was full of magic and superstition, and that everything was on the verge of decay; he argues that it in fact popular piety and practice was lively and healthy and that the Reformation was actually a violent disruption of vigorous late medieval piety rather than the removal of something decadent, unpopular and exhausted.
Duffy also makes the point that the defining doctrine of late medieval Catholicism was purgatory – he makes the interesting suggestion that this cult of the dead was a way of articulating convictions about the extent and ordering of human community, and hence of what it was to be human. And so, the Reformation was amongst, other things, an attempt to redefine the boundaries of human community – an attempt to limit the claims of the past, and the people of the past on the people of the present – it had, therefore a strong political element to it.
Now as products of the Reformation (however much some of us might have counter Reformation twinges) we’re not taking part this evening in a cult of the dead – nor pleading the case for souls in purgatory. Yet we’re far enough removed from those days of 460 years ago to feel that there is something about the dead and ourselves and our sense of community that makes it right and proper for us to solemnly recall them before God. One of the things that contemporary spirituality is recovering is a sense of the connectedness of all of life – a connectedness that runs through life and death – in its throwing out of the bath water, the Reformation got rid of the odd baby or two as well, I fear.
In his setting of the Requiem this evening John Rutter makes his own statement in the choice of texts about death and dying – it is interesting that he, as others have done before him, removes the hairiest parts of the medieval text – the Dies Irae - the 13th century words of the Dies Irae aren’t talking about a children’s tea party – “Day of wrath, day of anger will dissolve the world in ashes….great trembling there will be when the judge descends from heaven to examine all things closely ” There may no doubt have been times when unscrupulous medieval priests used the threat of the pains of purgatory and the temperature of the flames of hell to elicit a conversion – fear has been used by some more recently as well but fear and the threat of judgement are not what we’re called to be about
The medieval period, when the texts of the requiem originated, was a time when death was more of a part of everyday life than it is for many of us today – and so perhaps it preoccupied their spirituality in a way that it doesn’t ours.
However at the present time our world is heading we know not where – chaos death and destruction are more present realities than perhaps they have been for a long time. The connectedness of all of humanity is terrifyingly apparent to us all in the events of the present.
A central aspect of this evening’s celebration is a reminder of the one inescapable part of life- that part of life that connects everyone single one of us – and that is death – our own dying and those of ones we have loved, the dying of every person – and of that meeting with God that we call judgment.
Much hot air has been exuded about the rights and wrongs of purgatory – or whether we should or shouldn’t pray for the departed (and Christians of different denominations have wasted a considerable amount of time on that) - The bottom line is that we don’t know exactly what happens when we die – and any speculation can only be in the imagery of poetry and the life of faith. The Christian faith however makes a powerful proclamation as it asserts the resurrection of Christ and the love of God that desires everyone to have eternal life with him.
A Requiem holds two threads in a very careful tension which for me are most beautifully and powerfully conveyed in what is known as the Russian Contakion for the departed – which will be sung a little later in this service. One thread is the pain, sorrow and heartfelt wrenching that death and the loss of loved ones causes us – and there will be many of us feeling that very acutely this evening – and the other is the hope and promise of the fullness of life with God that the resurrection of Christ promise. The Contakion says “All we go down to the dust and weeping o’er the grave we make our song Alleluya, alleluya, alleluya.” – these two aspects of sorrow and rejoicing are also held in tension by the sombre p coloured vestments and the celebration of the Eucharist – the food of angels, the food of eternal life – the foretaste of the heavenly banquet.
As our gospel reminded us this evening, God is the world’s judge – but he is a merciful and compassionate judge. He yearns for his people to come back – he yearns for the whole world to be saved because we are all children of the same heavenly Father. We come this evening holding loved ones in our hearts before God in love – holding them in the faith and hope given us by the resurrection and God’s mercy – connected to all of them by the bonds of love which nothing can destroy – and as we weep o’er the grave may we truly be able to echo in our hearts the words –“Alleluya, alleluya, alleluya.”