As I am now over half way through my forty-two Memorial services (I do them class by class) here in the school I thought I would write-up my sermon. I use Luke 24:13-27, the road to Emmaus.
Why is November the month for remembering the dead? Autumn-Winter is the answer. As one of our staff pointed out returning to Ireland at this time of year is like returing to a country that's dying. The leaves are yellowing and falling, it's colder, wetter, and the nights longer. The birds hardly sing and there are no insects around. Our ancestors, those of us that are from the Northern Hemisphere, saw this time of the 'Earth's dying' as a time when the realms of the dead and the living were very close. Close enough for one to travel from one to the other. From this awareness came the feast, for the Celts, of Samhain (pronounced sau-when). They dressed up to conceal their identities and had food and drink on hand while they kept open house. Thus the dead and the living could easily mingle and the dead be appeased with food - if not the dead might take the living with them when they left. They gathered by fires and kept one another company praying for the return of the Sun.
When Christianity arrived it brought it traditions from the Roman world. If you go to Rome and visit St. Peters you can, if you book in advance, go on the SCAVI tour which takes you deep under St. Peter's into the Roman cemetary it's built over. There one can walk on Roman cobblestones, and touch beautiful Roman brickwork and look in through Roman doorways into the family vaults of the richer Romans. There in the walls and floors lie their dead. Often in the centre there's a small altar to offer sacrifice to the dead and the gods and a stairway to the roof or an upper room where the family could gather to eat in the presence of their dead relatives. The Romans did this usually around November 2nd which date the early Christians adopted as the time to pray for their own dead. They brought that tradition to Ireland and it meshed nicely with the local custom.
It serves another function though. It reminds us that we will not live forever. No matter how we might think ourselves young, beautiful and strong we cannot live forever. You will not live forever. You will die. Hopefully this will be when you are ninety or one hundred or a hundred and ten, when your teeth are no longer your own and you're all wrinkly. By then the ladies will have given up dying their hair and the guys have no hair to dye. Hopefully when that day comes you will be surrounded by family or friends who want you to stay but you will be ready to go. Hopefully by then you will be able to say that you want to go to God and that you have done your best to be the best you can be. Hoepfully by then you will be able to say you have no regrets, not because you will not regret but because you have done nothing to regret. What a waste to get to that moment and wish you could start again.
Our life is not meant to be a search for wealth, fame or power. If these come to us honestly, well and good, but they can be a blessing or a curse. Our lives are meant to be a preparation for death, for going to God where we belong. Like a baby in the womb we are to develop into full 'manhood' before we get born. This time of the year reminds us of that reality and we must ask ourselves the questions - "How have I spent this last year? Have I grown as a human being or have I shrivelled?"
This time of year also reminds us that we cannot hold on to our loved ones. They too must die. We would love to wrap them in cotton wool and surround them with steel but that would probably suffocate them and defeat the purpose. Death will come and with it grief. Many years ago a priest told me of a man who came to him for advice. He said he had married a woman and their first eight years had been the happiest of his life. Then she died. He was devasted but after some time he met someone else, fell in love and married. This too was a happy marriage but he was troubled by guilt. He still missed his first wife and felt he was being unfaithful to the second wife by missing the first. The priest told him that the human heart is able to love more than one person and that he should thank God for finding two women to love him. Then he asked how long the first wifehad been dead. "Fifty-four years" was the answer. After fifty-four years he stilled missed the firt wife. We do not get over the deaths of those we love. We learn to live with them and they become a part of us. I know of a man who still misses a friend he lost when he was twelve. We should love others while we have them.
The two men in this gospel had suffered a great bereavement. Jesus had promised them so much and they had come to hope in him, "Our own hope had been that he would be the one to set Israel free". Yet now he was dead and all their hopes were dashed. Marching out of Jerusalem, downhill, Jesus walks downhill with them. He does not identify himself nor do they recognize him, after all he's dead. He asks that innocent question "What were you talking about?" Of course they stop. They're stunned. There could've been up to a million or more Jews in the city for the festival and here's one who doesn't know what everyone else knows! Out of them flows their grief, anger and sorrow. Their hopes and expectations were betrayed when Jesus was betrayed by their own leaders and handed over to the Romans. The Romans had cruelly murdered him and now the women, finding no body have come up with this story of angels and a resurrection. No wonder they walked away. The Jesus begins to enlighten them. They are the foolish ones. The prophets had foretold this, Jesus himself had warned them, this was how the Christ was to enter His Glory, by suffering. This was how he was to conquer the Romans, take away sin, save Israel.
Only once have I had that experience of my hear buring within me. It is not easy to explain but it brings the certainty that what one hears is the truth, the absolute truth as one's soul cries out "YES!". Their souls told them this was the truth.
The message for us is that God walks with us in our lives whether we want him to or not, whether we know it or not, whether we believe it or not. God walks with us on our good days and bad days, in joy or sorrow. But God is so gentle, so humble, so shy that He will not impose on us, He will not force His presence on us or intrude upon us without our invitation, without our permission. He will not violate our freedom or our will. He waits patiently to be invited in. The 'door' to ones heart is locked on the inside and He will not force His way in. It is often at the key moments of life that He is most visible. The example that stands out for me is of a woman I knew many years ago. She wrote a poem about the first time she was alone with her new-born child (I wish I'd kept a copy). It is a very precious moment for a mother and she wrote those two stanzas about that time. There she spoke of her love for her child and that other love, not her own or any other human being's, that was there and surrounded her. The poem ended with the line "The world returned, click-heeled". Each of her children was born with Cystic Fibrosis, a genetic illness of the lungs all too common in Ireland. At that time such children had a life expectancy of about fifteen years with medication and therapy. Now they live into their thirties. Yet this lady had a strength, depth of faith and peace that radiated from her. She had found that Presence that makes us strong in our weakness. You have to discover that for yourself, no one can do it for you.
That is more or less my sermon. What I have learnt as a school chaplain is that however children and teenagers seem to be they are often deeply affected by the loss of someone. Grandparents are the most common obviously. Still among our students we have a goodly number that have lost brothers and sisters, parents and close friends. Parents can sometimes miss the signals that their child is in pain usually because the parents themselves may be suffering.
One final point, if you know or suspect someone is suffering grief be kind, support them. We all get there someday.