All Souls' Day
Preacher: Canon Ralph Godsall, Precentor (2001-2008)
2 November 2007 (All Souls' Day)
At the Bridge Chapel, Rochester
Some years ago I remember standing, far from here, by the most recently built bridge in the world. It was in Istanbul and it joined Europe to Asia, linking one diverse people and culture to another. It was built by a consortium of several nations and across its span passed people of every race and tongue. It seemed a great symbol of hope. Then I noticed that every fifty yards or so stood an armed guard: there had been so many threats to blow up the bridge from those who despised the idea of the human race growing into one family. This was indeed a powerful image of the modern world - a world divided between bridge-builders and bridge-breakers.
This chapel builds a bridge between the worldly purposes of the Bridge Trust and its sacred foundation as a place of prayer and hospitality for travellers. Remove the bridge, over which we so regularly cross between Rochester and Strood, and the difficulty of crossing safely from one side of the River Medway to the other will soon become all too apparent!
Similarly, the celebration of Holy Communion in this place builds a bridge between us and the founders and benefactors, whom we commemorate on this day, together with the souls of all the faithful departed.
All Souls’ Day is celebrated in November, in this month of remembrances and bonfires. The leaves, which issued forth in the springtime, are seen fleetingly in the glorious colours of their maturity, but having run their course, they wither and fall. All that remains is to tidy up and take them to the bonfire, for the year is passing.
There is a sacred story from the Jewish tradition which tells of a certain rabbi and his wife who had two sons to whom they were extremely devoted. One Sabbath morning while the rabbi was teaching the Law in the synagogue, both boys were struck by a sudden illness and died. Their mother laid them on a bed and covered them with a white sheet. When the rabbi came home for his meal and asked where the children were, his wife made some excuse and waited until the rabbi had eaten.
She did not answer her husband’s question, but instead asked one of him. ‘I am placed in a difficulty,’ she said, ‘because some time ago a person entrusted to my care some possessions of great value which he now wants me to give back. I am unsure of what to do. Am I obliged to return these great valuables to him?’
‘That you should need to put this question surprises me,’ the rabbi replied. ‘There can be no doubt about what you must do.’ How can you hesitate to restore to everyone what is his own?’
His wife rose from the table and asked her husband to follow her. She led him to the room where the two bodies lay and pulled back the sheet. ‘My sons, my sons,’ groaned the father in pain. ‘The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away,’ said his wife through the tears. ‘Blessed be the name of the Lord. You have always taught me to restore without reluctance what has been lent to us for our happiness. We have to return our two sons to the God of all mercies.’
Today we celebrate those whose good deeds are commemorated in the public service of the Bridge Trust. They are not just the faithful, departed from us. They are the faithful, returned to God. The Christian faith calls on us to pray for their eternal peace.
The Church has always taught that our charity should not be limited to the living. Charity and prayer have the power to bridge the last boundary – death itself. When we keep the feast of All Souls’ we pray for the dead and keep their memory alive. Today’s feast is keeping a pledge not to forget. Not to forget those whose fellowship with us, and with the Church militant here on earth, extends beyond the grave and gate of death. Not to forget those who can still be touched by the love that finds its voice in prayer.
‘There’s no proving eternal life,’ said the Elder in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. ‘But’, he continued, ‘you can be convinced by the experience of active love. Strive to love your neighbour actively and indefatigably. In as far as you advance in love, you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immortality of your soul. This has been tried. This is certain.’
We keep that tradition of charity alive today by praying for the repose of the souls of the founders and benefactors of the Bridge Trust. For our part bridge-building through prayer and acts of Christian charity in this place speak eloquently of the way of God and his Kingdom. Holy scripture tells us that Christ is our peace. It is a peace founded in faith and hope in God and grounded and rooted in prayer; an attitude with divine power to build impossible bridges between the living and the dead.