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THE COMMEMORATION OF THE FAITHFUL DEPARTED.
“We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.”
IT is plain from the writings of St. Paul, that even the apostles of our Lord did not know but that their Master’s coming might be in their own life time. He had, for the secret ends of His divine wisdom, left the day of His return unknown, that they might never give over watching. With them the strange thing was, not that He should be so near at hand, but that He should tarry so long. But time ran on. Some were called away from their earthly vigil: they began one by one to fall asleep: they whose eyes were dim with age, and the martyrs who were early bid to follow their Lord unseen: and as the time still lingered, and the storm fell upon the Church, the visible fellowship of saints grew thin, and apostles, evangelists, bishops, and holy brethren, fell asleep one by one. 321But the Church neither forgot them, nor deemed that they were severed from her fellowship. The communion of saints was a part of their baptismal faith; and though hid from her eyes, she knew they were nigh in spirit. And she fostered them in memory, and wrote their names in her book; and whensoever the saints, that were still left on earth to watch for the Lord, met together in the communion of the holy eucharist, she read aloud their names, as bidding them to their wonted place in her choir. She commemorated them with thanksgivings, and commended them to God’s keeping as her precious treasures.
Now this was done, first of all, out of love to them and to their image. She fondly cherished every remembrance of their words and deeds, of their gentleness and purity: she rejoiced over them with a sorrowful gladness, as a mother musing over departed children: she could no longer behold them, and break bread with them; but she could prolong their presence by the vivid recollection of their beloved image, and by the consciousness of an united adoration: she knew that while she tarried praying without, they were but within the precinct of an inner court, nearer to the eternal throne.
And next, she commemorated them in faith, to keep up the conscious unity of the Church. 322They were not severed, but only out of sight. The communion of saints was still one. Nothing was changed but the visible relations of an earthly life: all the unseen relations of love and fond attachment still remained, nay, were knit more closely; for they that were yet watching had an intenser love, softened and purified by sorrow; and they that slept were filled with the love of God. The unity of the saints on earth with the Church unseen is the closest bond of all. Hell has no power over it; sin cannot blight it; schism cannot rend it; death itself can but knit it more strongly. Nothing was changed but the relation of sight; like as when the head of a far-stretching procession, winding through a broken hollow land, hides itself in some bending vale: it is still all one; all advancing together; they that are farthest on ward in the way are conscious of their lengthened following; they that linger with the last are drawn forward, as it were, by the attraction of the advancing multitude. Even so they knew themselves to be ever moving on; they were ever pressing on beyond the bounds of this material world. They knew the life of the Church to be one, and indivisible; that seen or unseen, there was but one energy of spiritual being, in which all were united; that all were nourished by the same hidden manna, and slaked their thirst in the same waters of life. 323They were one in the personality of Christ’s mystical body; and all their acts of love and adoration were shared in full by each several member.
Again; they commemorated their sleeping brethren in faith, that they might give God the glory of their salvation from this evil world. They ceased not to render the sacrifice of thanks to Him for His accomplished mercy in forgiving them their many sins. They remembered what they had been at the first; how from blind Judaism, or blinder heathenism, or a proud philosophy, or from a sensual life, God had translated them “into the kingdom of His dear Son;” how He had made them new creatures. They did not forget John Baptist, and the ever-blessed Virgin, and John the beloved disciple, and Mary Magdalene, and Saul the persecutor, and those vessels of grace in whom was reflected the fulness of God’s pardoning mercy. In the commemoration of the saints, they shewed forth the manifold grace of Christ, and the manifold fruits of His mysterious passion; and thus, while they lovingly cherished their memories, they also, and above all, glorified the King of Saints. But they had also another design in this act of commemoration; namely, to stir up the faithful in their warfare by the deeds of the saints in rest. Well did they know that nothing preaches like example. The day was not come when men should undertake 324by words and lifeless signs alone to win souls for Christ. They knew that words are as weak as deeds are almighty; that Moses was slow of tongue, and that some deemed even the speech of Paul contemptible; that deeds carry all before them. Therefore they unrolled, year after year, and feast after feast, the catalogue of saints, and read aloud their warfare and their victory; thereby to embolden with a holy daring the Church militant on earth; to put a new heart and a new life into the weary and the wavering; to shew what is possible, what is easy, for regenerate man to do; to provoke us to a manlier faith by desire for a crown like theirs, and by shame at a life like our own.
I have now stated generally the intention of the Church in keeping up the memory of her sleeping members. It arose naturally, and by the unconscious promptings of love and faith. The perpetual commemoration of the saints fulfilled, even in the ages of the most enkindled charity and of the keenest faith, high and significant offices in the witness of the Church. But most of all is it of moment now, in days when faith is faint, and the love of many hath waxed cold. We will, then, consider awhile, of what especial moment is this affectionate commemoration in feasts and eucharists to the Church of these latter times.
And, first of all, it is a witness against what 325 I may call the Sadduceeism of Christianity. It is strange enough that faith and love should have waxed so chill and dead among the Jews of old, that any should have arisen to deny the resurrection, and the very being of angels and of spirits; but stranger far -that Christians should be sunk so low in cold, unfeeling torpor, as to live forgetful of the world unseen. Alas, how awful is the chastisement which follows on irreverent handling of holy things! Our forefathers too boldly ventured in within the veil, and troubled the sleep of the saints with importunate invocations; and thrust upon the followers of Him, who sought to hide Himself when men would have come to make Him a king, offices and dignities in God’s kingdom, of which the prerogative is God’s only. And from their first bold step they passed on to a prying curiosity into the secrets of God’s hidden world; and must needs mete out the measures and conditions of the holy and unholy dead, and leave little known to God alone, but know all things, even beyond His revelations, and before His time: and in the realms of the unseen they grew bewildered, and thought they saw horrible phantoms, which mocked them into a belief of their own fevered imaginations. And on these they built up a lying doctrine, and beguiled men by a still more lying practice, and turned the unseen world into a fable, and the commemoration 326of the saints into a snare. And from this, by a not unnatural recoil, what they over-fondly doated on, we have coldly forgotten. The superstition of ages past has recoiled into the Sadduceeism of to-day. I am not speaking of free-thinkers, but of good and earnest people. They so overlook the time between death and resurrection, as virtually to shut it out of their belief: they make it almost a test of sound doctrine to leave out all teaching of the unseen state. With the entire book of the Apocalypse before their eyes, of which (except the last two chapters) the whole relates to the lifetime of this visible world, and the parallel state of waiting and adoration in the world invisible, they think a cold reserve the surest token of illuminated faith. Not, indeed, when sorrow breaks upon them, and loved ones pass into the paradise of God: then nature, and truth, and love, are too strong for them: and the instincts and affections of their new-born hearts, long pent up in a forced and unnatural constraint, come down in full tide upon them, and carry them over the narrow barriers of their unsympathising theology. A riven heart is the best expositor of God’s teaching about the saints asleep. Few have ever sorrowed, and missed learning mysteries of consolation. Sometimes, alas, this is not so. The habitual unconsciousness of an unseen world, in which even good men have been content 327to live, so insensibly deadens the quickness of the spiritual perceptions, that the heaviest sorrow leaves upon their hearts but a shallow and short lived impress of the intermediate state. For a while their affections follow the departing spirit; and it may be they think their hearts will never return to this rough world, but dwell within the veil for ever. In a little time the first visions of the realities unseen, be they never so vivid, begin to fade into a colder light; and realities soften off into shadows, and shadows melt into films, and from films they draw themselves into motes; and this world and all its going-on of life, and the hurryings to and fro of every day, and the emptiness of home, and the loneliness of night, and the returning sadness of the morrow, so throng about a man, and first lower upon him, and then settle heavily upon him, that many give back from their first feelings, and unbind their resolutions, and shrink from the severe life of walking alone on the brink of the world unseen. The end of this is, that they become again, for the most part, what they were before: humbler, and it may be, more softened, more tender; on the whole, more religious,—but still entangled in the near and sensible things of this earthly life. And thus, it may be, they make forfeit of hidden blessings which God has tendered to them. They choose again 328a full home, rather than an empty one, fellowship rather than loneliness, a lower rather than a higher level in the life of God.
But though this may be found even in better men, the full Sadduceeism of the day is to be seen in the great mass of less earnest minds. It is not too much to say, that in a little while they have for gotten the dead. Of course there are exceptions: warm hearts will always cling, by an involuntary and almost unconscious fondness, to the memory of the departed. But here is the very difference: it is to their memory, not to their fellowship; to what they were, not to what they are. They look back on them, and remember their poor struggling humanity, their life of earth, their body of humiliation; all their endearing images are of early days, and gleams of transient happiness, and soft smiles, and softer tears, and the smooth cheek, and the full eye of this life’s painted fairness; so that, after all, it is an embodied image, a dream of the earth, that such fond hearts still dwell upon. O that they had learned a higher and holier lore! Their loved ones are still the same, and yet are not what they were: they have passed from the humiliation of the body to the majesty of the spirit. The weakness, and the littleness, and the abasement of life, are gone; they are now excellent in strength, full of heavenly light, ardent with love, above fallen 329humanity, akin to angels. And it is we that pity the dead, call them poor, and shed tears over their coil of dust, which they put off at their exaltation. The living pity the dead? horrible pride! blind folly! while it may be they muse sadly and lovingly on us, and on our. burdened and fretful life.
Most earthly are the thoughts respecting the sleeping saints even in better minds: as for the rest of men, they soon forget them. When they have buried their dead out of their sight, the unseen world closes up with the mouth of the grave; and they turn back to their homes, and muse in sadness how they may begin to weave the same web over again, and make a new cast for happiness, and be gin life afresh. It makes one’s blood run cold to hear some people talk of the departed. And why is all this? What should put so unnatural a force upon the very instincts of the heart, but the cold tradition of a Christian Sadduceeism? Against this, then, the commemoration of the Church is a direct and wholesome witness.
Another most excellent benefit of this commemoration is, its tendency to heal the schisms of the visible Church. No particular branch of the visible body can be in energetic unity with the fellowship of other Churches, so long as its fellowship with the Church unseen is suspended. This contact with the invisible is the life of the visible 330Church: when once the bond of faith and love with this is loosened, the bond of visible unity also is well nigh dissolved. In all the contests of the Church on earth, all her members, be they never so much divided (unless by heresy or schism), still hold communion in the court of heaven. They all find a common head in the King, and a common fellowship in the communion of saints. Their hearts make, as it were, a silent appeal from each other’s misunderstandings to that world where all things are fully understood. In the glorious company of the apostles, the goodly fellowship of the prophets, the noble army of martyrs, the holy Church throughout all the world is one. The eastern and the western are one in Athanasius and Cyprian, in Basil and Augustine; and in the lines of holy bishops, and the companies of blessed saints long ago fallen asleep, the Churches of the west are one. Schisms are half healed when hearts are chafed into love towards one common object; even as alienated sons meet and embrace in their love to one fond mother. And as the saints of Christendom are the unearthly bond even of divided Churches, so is the hallowed ancestry of each particular Church a bond of unity to its several members. Men are already half reconciled when they have agreed to honour one and the same spiritual lineage. It calls them out of themselves, 331and corrects the lordliness and pride of the individual will. O how infinitely mean appears all our fretfulness and littleness, which we would fain impose on others, and on ourselves, as zeal for truth, and jealousy for the glory of God! If they that sleep could read to us out of the book of their earthly life, how should we burn for shame at the poverty of our own! Therefore the Church commemorates their earthly warfare, that we may go forth out of ourselves in a reverent love for those whose sanctity abashes our inflated self-esteem. She bids us remember that, in comparison with her mighty dead, we are but worms; that the Church is not ours to rend and set in array, nor to patronise, and irreverently praise; that we are but one of a flowing tide of generations—one only—and that neither the wisest nor the best. Better were it for us to stand in awe at our own littleness. We are but a handful of restless, fretful, self-exalting children in the sight of the Church unseen.
Therefore, year by year, let us reverently commemorate their names, remembering what they were, but stedfastly gazing at what they are. Their very words are still ringing in our ears: of some the beloved image too is full before us. Let us live as they would bid us, could they still speak: let us fulfil their known behests, following in their steps, filling up the works that they began, carrying 332on their hallowed offices now bequeathed to our care: let us be like them in deadness to sin, and unceasing homage to our unseen Lord. As we grow holier, we grow nearer to them: to be like them is to be with them: even now they are not far from us, we know not how nigh. As yet, for a time, the veil is drawn. We shall know all at His coming. It may be, we shall say—What! so near, and we could not see you? At times we could almost fancy we were not alone; but when we strained our sight, we saw nothing; when we listened, all was still.
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