REMEMBERING THE DEPARTED
SERMON PREACHED BY FR. TONY NOBLE ON NOVEMBER 9th, 2008
1 Thessalonians 4: 14
“Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”
Today’s readings each contain improbable stories – the Gospel is a very strange story of the bridegroom who turns up very late after midnight (either inconsiderate or drunk!) and ten maidens waiting to attend him. In the Authorized Version they are described as ten virgins, five wise and five foolish. And how tempting it is for me to preach about five foolish virgins this morning!
Looking next at the first reading from the Old Testament (Amos 5:18-24) the prophet says: “The day of the Lord is a day of darkness – not light”. Again a strange story – and a rather chilling message for those who believe the day of the Lord is a day of joy.
And in the Epistle (I Thessalonians 4:13-18) Saint Paul describes the second coming as us meeting him and the departed in the clouds in the air, which is a bit difficult to envisage. So instead of preaching about either of these improbable images I would like to talk instead about a child called Eino Panula.
When the Titanic sunk on April 15th, 1912, off the coast of North America a child’s body was found and buried in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The grave was marked “Unknown Child”, and for the next 90 years the residents of Halifax dutifully tended that grave with care and love.
In 2001 researchers did tests on remains in the grave. The genetic profile from his bones matched a 68 year old European women called Magda Schleifer. She was actually the 68 year old niece of a Mrs Panula who had perished on the Titanic, along with her five sons. The “Unknown Child” in that grave turned out to be the youngest son – 13 month old Eino Panula.
So it was that in November 2002, Magda Schleifer visited that grave in Halifax, along with her daughter and granddaughters. We can only imagine what a moving occasion that must have been, as much for the people of Halifax as for Magda.
This is what Magda said at that time when she came to visit the grave: “The child has been taken care of here. It is so hard to believe that it’s been cared for 90 years since the accident and now have it revealed that we are his family”. For 90 years the residents of Halifax cared for the grave of an unknown child, with love and concern!
I remember those words, because about the same time I went back to the town where I was born, Salisbury, South Australia. I visited St John’s Church, where I was baptised, and then the Church cemetery, where my grandparents are buried. Not only was their grave overgrown with weeds – it was sinking – and it wasn’t the only one. I arranged with the Rector to have the grave repaired and cleaned up. And I reflected on the words in that well-known hymn: “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away”.
These days both bodies and ashes are interred in memorial parks and gardens, where someone will care and tend for them. For us who make arrangements before we die, it is a great comfort to us – and also no doubt to our families, who will one day not be able to personally care for them. This is a comfort to us – even as we remember the words of Scripture: “For our homeland is in heaven”.
Even if our care and love for the departed may wane, nevertheless the Church, our Mother, goes on praying and remembering – as we do every Sunday when we pray for those whose year’s mind occur this week.
Last Sunday we commemorated all the saints in heaven, as we kept our festiva. Then on Monday the mood was more somber, as Requiem Mass was offered for all the faithful departed.
At the two Masses for All Souls’ Day, many many names were read at the Altar. As I read them at the Mass I celebrated, many were familiar. Some were family and friends from Australia – bringing a fond recollection or a smile. Some were people I have ministered to here in my five years as Rector – remembering visits and prayers. Some were people whose funerals I have conducted here in this very Church. Those from this year brought a particular emotion to mind. There may be a twinge of grief or sadness and this is natural.
But why do we do this? It is more than just remembering. Firstly, because we have loved, and we will keep on loving. Secondly, we want to remember, and we want to thank God for those whose lives have touched ours. Thirdly, because we still pray for them.
What is prayer – if it is not an act of love? Indeed praying for our departed loved ones is the way that we can keep on expressing our love for them, sometimes long after they have gone.
And we pray, not without hope. As Saint Paul says (1 Thess 4:13): “We would not have you ignorant concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do, who have no hope”.
Yes everyone grieves, and many people grieve without hope. Christians grieve like everyone else, but we grieve not without hope. And as Saint Paul goes on to say, our hope is that they are in heaven with Christ. Heaven, which is our homeland.
Saint Paul makes it quite plain in 1 Thessalonians, what our attitude to death should be. We may grieve the death of those we love – indeed we do, for it is normal to be sad about death, even sometimes angry. But not without hope. For we have this wonderful hope that Jesus’ resurrection was not only something that happened to him, not only just a sign of hope for us. But Jesus’ resurrection is the reality that awaits all Christian people.
And here at the Eucharist when we have a foretaste of heaven, is no better place to remember our loved ones, both living and departed.
And so I conclude with words of Saint Monica, said to her two sons as she lay dying in a foreign country far from home:
“Lay this body wherever it may be. Let no care of it disturb you: this only I ask of you – that you should remember me at the Altar of the Lord wherever you may be”.