The Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed
All Souls Day, 2 November 2014
St. Macartan’s Cathedral, 10.30am
Brothers and Sisters in Jesus Christ,
The priest was working as a chaplain in a New York hospital. One of the patients, an old lady who was dying, never received any visitors. She told the chaplain not to be annoying her with his visits. “I don’t need professional mourners”, she told him. “You have to do your duty but don’t do it on me. There are plenty of patients here – go to them and leave me alone”.
The nurses and doctors were more than kind to her. They usually met with a rebuff that was not as delicately phrased as the one the chaplain received. They all felt helpless. All the other patients in the ward had regular visitors but “Iron Annie”, as she was called, liked to boast to the others that she needed no one. She had played hide and seek with God and she claimed he had lost interest in the game long ago. She would leave as she had lived, neither looked for nor remembered.
The chaplain continued to stop by her bed, and she continued to swear at him. At 2.20am one morning, he woke to the noise of the phone ringing. The nurse apologised for the lateness of hour but Iron Annie wanted to know why, despite being Scottish, he never wore a kilt. Would he care to explain? She added that the explanation would be too late in the morning.
The hospital was only a few minutes walk from the rectory and when the chaplain arrived at the bedside Iron Annie greeted him with a well-worn curse. Iron Annie unloaded an old grief that had been part of her baggage for too long. They both laughed in relief. They talked of kilts and Scottish cussedness, of night wards, rectories and loneliness. Then they said no more. There was nothing more to say. The divine game of hide and seek had ended with a find from Iron Annie. She died just after eight o’clock that morning.
Two nurses came to the funeral. Neither of them was asked to come. They came to show their respect and because they believed that no one should make their final departure alone. Even that simple gesture of kindness gave the funeral an enormous dignity. As they cared for the living, so they cared for the dead. The chaplain and the nurses lived and honoured an ancient truth: it is good to remember the dead and to pray for them.
The Church has always taught that our charity should not be limited to the living. When we celebrate the feast of All Souls we pray for the dead and keep their memory alive. No matter how prepared we are for the death of those we love, their death is always a numbing experience. Because we love them, we miss them when they die and the whole experience can be very disabling. We can feel abandoned like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They feel orphaned in the death of Jesus. They leave Jerusalem, the place where everything went wrong and try to put it all behind them.
They are joined in their journey by a stranger who invites them to share their story. They are two people whose hopes are dead. They have nothing to live for now. Both hoped that Jesus was the Messiah. Now they are ex followers of a dead prophet with nowhere to go except away from Jerusalem. Then the stranger tells his story. Suffering and death, he explains, have their own place in the plan of God and they can lead to the glory of the kingdom.
The two disciples invite the stranger to stay because it is almost evening and the day far spent. He agrees. The stranger gives himself away in the breaking of bread. Suddenly they realise that Jesus is risen. When they realise that, they are changed. They are now disciples of the risen Lord. They have a future again. They have a story to tell. Christ conquered death and, in him, our hope is reborn. We believe that Jesus is Lord of the living and the dead. That is our faith and our faith gives substance to our hope.
We gather today, and on many November days, to remember those who may need our prayer. We pray for those we have known, and for many we have never known. Our charity and our prayers embrace all those who have died lonely deaths in the absence of love and support. When we die, we may be encouraged by the charity of the Christian community which will remember us in prayer. We keep alive that tradition of charity when, like today, we gather to remember and pray for the dead.
+Liam S. MacDaid
1 November 2014