A Sermon for
By Dr. Robert Crouse
"Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost." St. John 6:12November is a month of contrasts and conflicts - a battle ground of summer's warmth and winter's chill. There are still those lovely, golden autumn days; still there are a few late flowers blooming in the beds around the quadrangle - there and there a few marigolds or cosmos. And, surprisingly, my garden at home has just now produced a couple of splendid blooms of Easter lilies beside my doorstep. But if the weatherman is right in his prognosis, it seems we may awaken tomorrow morning to several centimetres of snow, and that won't be very nice for the lilies!
The calendar of the Church's year follows closely the cycle of nature's seasons, and for that calendar, too, November is a month of contrasts.
It is ushered in with the great Festival of All Saints - that celebration of the glorious harvest of the spirit, of sanctity matured and gathered in, stored up and treasured in the heavenly Jerusalem. It is a glorious festival of joy, and peace, and life fulfilled - the golden days of autumn, a festival all white and gold.
But then, the very next day, the livery of the church is changed to black, for the Observance of All Souls and mass is said for all the faithful souls departed. It is as though we were observing the last little gleaming of spiritual harvest, the fragments remaining from the Feast.
But the tone of the ancient mass of requiem is far from cheerful, "Dies irae, dies illa," says the 13th century sequence hymn by Thomas of Celano - "Day of wrath and doom impending/David's word with Sibyl's blending/Heaven and earth in ashes ending." All very solemn and austere, and how wonderfully that spirit is articulated in the solemn and lovely and sometimes bitter-sweet music of the Faure mass.
In contrast with current fashions in Christian piety, which insists that we are all "Resurrection People", the "Whole People of God", the ancient mass of requiem seems to imply that we are not quite all saints, and that getting to be saints may be a painful and difficult business: a narrow gate, a long road, and judgement at the end of it.
Sanctity is a problem. As we learned from the All Saints' Day gospel lesson, it means pure of heart: "Blessed are the pure in hearts," says Jesus, "For they shall see God". That is to say, to be a saint is to will in all things only the pure and simple and perfect good, which is God: to love God with all the heart, and all the soul, and all the mind, and with all the strength, and in the perspective of that love, to love one's neighbour as oneself. That is purity of heart: as Kierkegaard puts it, in the title of one of his books, "Purity of heart is to will one thing". To will one thing - only pure and simple and perfect good. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." Blessed are they whose loves are all united in the one love of God. As Boethius says, in the Consolation:O happy race of men
If the love that rules the stars
May also rule your hearts.
And the ancient pagan Aristotle, and the medieval Christian Dante would say the same.
But who then is pure of heart? Our wills, our loves, are certainly far from simple. We will so many things; so many "goods", so many "bads", and we get so confused about them; and, as St. Paul says, even the good that we would do, we do not, and the evil that we would not do is precisely what we do. "If thou Lord, will be extreme to mark what is done amiss/ O Lord, who may abide it?" Our goodness is very limited, and like the late autumn flowers, it's really pretty fragile.
Fragments of sanctity - crumbs of sanctity. The goodness of our works will never save us: "What shall I, frail man, be pleading.../when the just are mercy needing", says Thomas of Celano. The nest that can be said of us is that finally by God's grace, we really do intend the good, and we must trust God's mercy to make that perfect. "Gather up the fragments...that nothing be lost." God will not despise our fragments, which go towards making up the twelve baskets of his new Israel. When we speak of the "faithful departed", we mean those whose final choice, even if only in the final moment of all life's choosings, is for the good; and we trust God's mercy to make of that fragment something more - to purify the heart, that no fragment be lost, that the harvest be complete.
We pray for the departed, as we pray for one another here and now. We do not cease to be our brothers' keepers when we commend them to God's keeping, and we plead Christ's sacrifice for them and for ourselves. The prayer is essentially the same: that God, who works in them and us, will save and nurture and bring to fruition our little fragments of spiritual life, that we may come at last to the peace of the saints, the purity of heart which wills one thing. Amen. +
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