At this time of year, we do a lot of remembering.
Last week, we had our service of Remembrance and Thanksgiving when we remembered those who have died. We invite the families of those whose funerals we have taken – and anyone else who has lost family and friends – and we read out the names of those who are on their hearts and minds. Before I came, there would also have been a proper All Souls service, where Mass would have been said for all those who are on our list – the list of people we remember week by week in our intercessions at the anniversaries of their deaths.
When we read out the names of those who have died, we are remembering them before God, putting them once more into God’s hands, praying that they will have peace and rest and praying that we will have peace and rest in our memories of them. Yes, it can be painful; it can be very intense; it brings back memories; it reminds us of our loss. And we give our pain and loss to God, and ask God to touch our wounds and heal them.
Today is Remembrance Sunday, and we are remembering all those who died as a result of war, whether family members or not. This includes members of the armed forces and all the civilian casualties caught in the crossfire, of whom there are many millions.
War is terrible. So many young men and women have been killed in the wars of the 20th and 21st centuries. And the physical and mental injuries caused to those who survive can have a huge and continuing impact on peoples’ lives and on their families’ lives. Violence is never the answer to conflict. When people fall out and when nations fall out, war is not the solution. So Remembrance Sunday is a reminder to pray for peace, and to encourage our politicians always to go for peaceful solutions to international problems. It’s not the fault of those who go to war. They are sent by the politicians – and they must take the blame.
Those who serve in the armed forces, those who go to war, are serving their country, and I am sure that many of them do with good motives. They are the people we are remembering today. We know that hundreds of men from Bensham were killed in the First World War. We have a number of objects given to the church to remember some of them. And then many others were killed or injured in the Second World War, in Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan and all the rest.
All this recollection of those who have died raises big questions for us and a huge challenge.
The questions are about what death is like, and in particular what life after death is like. As Christians, we believe in life after death. We believe Jesus rose again from the dead, and we too will rise on the Last Day, when Jesus returns. That’s exactly what it says in today’s second reading from the epistle to the Thessalonians. Paul teaches that in the Resurrection our bodies will be entirely transformed. We will be fully alive with Christ, renewed to live with him with energy and vitality – life in all its fullness – living in a redeemed and re-created world, in a new heaven and a new earth. That will all come about at the End of Time.
The Bible is less clear about what happens between death and the Final Resurrection. There are hints and suggestions here and there, but it takes some skill to pick out the key elements. It seems that those who have died go to a temporary resting place. Somewhere along the line there is judgement about our lives on earth. The righteous – we might say the saints – go straight to be with Christ, praising God. It may be that those who have died get another chance to commit themselves to Christ – I certainly hope so. And that’s as much as we can say based on the New Testament. There is so much that we don’t know.
I would say, from my own experience, that there is consciousness in the next life, the life in between. I have heard so many stories of people who have experienced the presence of a departed loved one. They know us and they care about us. I believe the veil between heaven and earth is very thin. But I can’t prove any of that.
The challenge for us is to face our own mortality. When we remember those who have died, it is also a reminder that we too will die one day. And that gives us choices to make about our own lives, about who we are, how we want to live, how we want to be remembered; and choices about our dying. I pray that I will make a good death, and for me, a good death means being at peace with God and being at peace with my family. Being at peace with God means knowing that God has forgiven me and loves me and that I have done my best to be the best Meg Gilley God created me to be. Being at peace with my family means having resolved any differences and having told them how much I love them. A good death also means for me having some control over the process – personally, I don’t want to be kept alive by medical processes when there is no quality of life – though I realise that once I’m in that position, I might see it differently. I want to have all the appropriate sacraments at the end of life: confession, Holy communion, anointing for death. And I need to have that all written down, so that the family know my wishes. I also need to renew my will so that it’s up to date and expresses my wishes regarding my worldly possessions, including how some of that can be used to make the world a better place. All of those things will help me to go peacefully whenever the time comes, in so far as I have any control over things. In the end, there is such a lot that it out of my control, and I am at peace with that.
I tell you all this as a challenge to think about what a good death means for you. It’s not morbid to do that, but a sensible and spiritual thing to do.
We have been thinking about the deaths of loved ones and of those killed in war and what that means for our own living and dying. In doing that we are saying: Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.