All Souls Day: 2nd November, 2013
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us" (Hebrews 12:1)
Tomorrow we observe the feast of All Saints (translated from Friday) remembering the spiritual celebrities — like our patron saint Peter, like the Blessed Virgin Mary, like St Francis, St Claire, St Bernard of Clairvaux — these great men and women whose names have gone down in history are the "architects" if you like of the church universal. And tomorrow we will honour them and pray for them to look kindly over us, to inspire us and to guide us.
But today we have a different task. Today we share in a Requiem Mass for the repose of All Souls. Today is a day to honour the everyday faithful departed, the "brick layers" the "stone masons" and the "cooks" of the church universal. Without both saints and ordinary faithful souls, without both the great and the small, there would be no Church today. I was reminded of this truth, both materially and spiritually, when visiting Canterbury Cathedral last month. The saints are well known and their stories inspire faith in every age. It was deeply moving to stand on the stone floor where St Thomas à Beckett's blood was spilt in 1170, and later to pray in the crypt where pilgrims had flocked for centuries, drawn by the healing legends of his shrine. It was a thin place. It was not hard to feel God's presence as I prayed. But equally moving was a story our guide told of the firewatchers who courageously patrolled the cathedral roofs during the Second World War, some at the cost of their own life, as incendiary bombs blitzed the city and cathedral grounds. This beautiful Cathedral, symbolically the very heart of our Anglican Communion, it only stands today because of the physical hard work and bravery, and because of the spiritual leadership and prayer of countless hundred of thousands across the ages. The vast majority of these people are now unknown by name ... except to God. Today we remember these ordinary folks, All Souls, as dearly beloved by God as the most famous of the saints.
This time of year is particularly poignant for my family as yesterday is my sister's birthday, and on All Souls day each year we add her name to a memorial list as we remember her death in a climbing accident in 1997. Many of you have written down the names of your closest loved ones who have died, and they will be read out at today's Requiem Mass. Many other names and memories sit in all of our hearts as we gather together today. It is a blessed thing indeed to remember together those who have died. Another dear soul we should remember at this time is two-year-old Tanilla Warrick-Deaves, from New South Wales, who was murdered by her mother's boyfriend in 2011 when he lost his temper while trying to toilet train the toddler. You may have heard the horror story of her death on the news. Her alleged killer, Warren Ross, is reported to have said to a friend, "I hit her with an extension cord, a strap, with a wooden spoon, but she just doesn't learn." The abuse went on and it was two days before an ambulance was called, but by then it was too late to save Tanilla. May she rest in peace ... and rise in glory.
The teaching of Jesus, the good news of the gospels, is salve for a broken world. It is needed as much today as it was at any other time in history. We are indeed surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, but I sometimes wonder what they think as they look into our lives. Are they bemused by our squabbles and infighting? What do they think of our self-centeredness and pride? Do their hearts break as they see us ignore the Lazarus at our gate or the Tanilla in the house next door? Perhaps they long to see each one of us take up the evangelistic zeal of St Francis of Assisi or the tireless energy and compassion of St Mary MacKillop. Perhaps we will each in humility today open our hearts afresh to that same Holy Spirit, and pray with All Saints and All Souls that ancient prayer: "Here I am Lord, send me."
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.