Homily of Bishop Stephen Wright:
The Month of November is traditionally a time when our thoughts and prayers turn to those who have died. It is also a time when we reflect on our own mortality too.
Our liturgical year is coming to an end. After this weekend, there are just two more Sundays before we begin the New Church Year as Advent begins. Let us pray that Advent will indeed be a new beginning for us all as we hope to gather again for the celebration of Mass in our churches.
Given recent Government decisions, may I express my thanks to all the volunteers who have helped keep our churches so safe. We are all disappointed that we cannot meet for Mass at present but as good citizens we must abide by that decision.
At this time of the year the readings and prayers at Mass focus more and more on the last things and invite us to be ready for when God calls us to be with him. “Stand ready, stay awake” are common themes at this time of the liturgical year. This can all seem daunting and off putting, but, it should not be so.
The Gospel today speaks of ten bridesmaids. Five bridesmaids who are ready for a celebration. And five who are not. Like the other “be ready, stay awake” Gospel readings this can leave us a bit challenged, if not scared. I am forever forgetting things and I am rather fond of a snooze, am I doomed too?
But, please, I hope we see the imminent joy in this Gospel. It is about preparation, being ready, for a celebration, for a joyful occasion. It is not the gallows we face or a judgement from an angry judge. It is an invitation to a wedding party, to a banquet, an event full of joy, full of laughter, full of love and friendship. It is an invitation to be with the Lord forever. With that in mind, why would we not want to be ready for that? Why would we want to sleep through that?
May I suggest, it is not asking that much to stand there with your oil lamp lit with sufficient oil. Jesus reassures us in the Gospels, “Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light.” Jesus carries our burdens. When we carry burdens, give them to Him in prayer.
So, what is being ready? “Yes, Lord, I want to be with you in the banquet” is the response of faith. “Lord be my light and let me share it with those around me.” That is standing ready to meet the Lord.
As we know, the month of November is filled with prayerful celebrations that help bring us closer in prayer with those who have died. The month began last Sunday with the celebration of All Saints as we rejoice with all those who see God face to face. We truly hope our loved ones are among that number in Heaven. On the 2nd November we commemorated those, we pray, who are on the way to be with the Lord. We all need to be forgiven and purified by God. May those who have died truly rest in peace as they open their very selves to that forgiveness and purification.
Tomorrow is Remembrance Sunday. As a nation we will remember those who have died in service of their country in conflict. It is right that we show prayerful respect for their sacrifice by praying for them and working for peace so that future generations are spared the horrors that these men and women and so many others suffered.
This Wednesday, at 11am on the 11th day of the 11th Month I trust we will do the same. Spend two minutes in respectful prayer in memory of the fallen.
November is a fitting time of the year, then, for our Diocesan tradition to celebrate a Mass in memory of the deceased members and spouses of the Catenian Association. The names of those who have died this past year will be prayerfully read out at this Mass. We thank them all for their Christian witness, their prayers, their fellowship and their charity all of which lie at the heart of the life of the Catenian Association. At this Mass we commend them to the Lord. May they all rest in peace.
But for us all who are participating in this Mass, through the live stream, please name out loud or in the quiet of your hearts the people who have died that you wish to pray for at this Mass. May they rest in peace.
Our readings today invite us to be wise about those who have died. We should take great comfort from St. Paul’s teachings in our second reading:
“We want you to be quite certain brothers about those who have died to make sure that you do not grieve about them like the other people who have no hope.”
If I stop there, please note that St. Paul is not saying we are not to grieve. He is saying do not grieve without hope.
We do grieve because we miss our loved ones and we want that physical bodily presence, do we not? Grief is learning to love the other in a new way and learning to be loved by the other in a new way.
That yearning to be with loved ones who have died is very powerful, is it not?
I had a reminder of that power, this past fortnight in an unexpected way. I was meant to be on a non-religious work conference this past week that was correctly cancelled due to the imminent lockdown. It was a secular conference about leadership and in preparation the 10 participants were asked a series of questions about leadership that would be shared as a means of helping with introductions.
I confess, I am not a fan of writing up biographies, CVs and answering those ice breaker type questions that will be used for an introduction, as I never know what to write, most of the time. But one question really hit home for me. It may for you today or in this month of praying for the dead?
The question was “Which three people, past or present, would you invite to your dinner party and why?” The context of the conference was thinking of inspiring leaders but actually the question was very open ended.
You may rightly expect me, as a Bishop, to invite Jesus of Nazareth, surely, but the good Lord was an answer to another question so I felt I could respectfully leave him off the invitation list. So I scratched my head for a while trying to come up with three impressive, inspiring leaders, whether religious or not. There were plenty to choose from.
But I confess the question went much deeper into me, from my head, to firmly locating itself in my heart.
I could not get past the moving and to me very prayerful thought of inviting three people who I love dearly and miss every day because they have died. To sit with them and share a meal is all I wanted. What I would give for that. What a joy that would be.
May I offer this as a very simple image of praying for the dead. When we pray for them we do indeed sit with them in the presence of God’s joyful banquet. And don’t limit your guest list to three. Heaven has room for everyone.
Back to the questionnaire, I wondered if I had been too religious and whether my answers would stick out at a secular conference. I need not have worried. As the introductory materials were shared this past week I noticed most of the other nine participants wrote down names of people they love who had died.
It was a prayerful lesson for me as to of how the Gospel message of Christ’s death and Resurrection touches the human heart, whether that person is religious or not. It is a reminder of how people are so open to the Gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection, even if they are not aware of it as yet.
St. Paul writes:
“we believe that Jesus died and rose again and that it will be the same for those who have died in Jesus. God will bring them with him.” “With such thoughts you should comfort one another”
This is the good news, the Gospel which we bring to people every day. This is the hope with which we grieve.
We will one day, God willing, sit at a dinner party, an eternal banquet with the people we yearn to be with. But let’s be humble and correct, it is the Lord who does the inviting to the dinner party, not me and not you. On our part, we just need be ready to say yes, with the lamp of faith alight.
The first reading similarly invites us to be wise. The first reading speaks of Lady Wisdom as a “she,” quite right too I hear the ladies say, full of wisdom, of course. Lady Wisdom is being close to God. She walks with us through life.
I love the line in today’s first reading that when she, Lady Wisdom, is with us, “anxiety will quickly leave you.”
Understandably bereavement can be a very anxious part of our lives. The emotions are so powerful and the pain so intense. But God says to us in the readings today, be wise, be hopeful, all is well as all ends in God. Grieve, yes, but do so wisely and full of hope. If you are anxious, cast your anxiety onto God and leave it with him.
Of course our loved ones who have died are more fully alive than you and me. We pray they see God as God sees them. That they know God as God knows them. We pray they are truly wise, close to God, we pray that their hope is fulfilled.
Our relationship to those who have died should be the familiar relationship of love. We talk with them in prayers, we listen to them in prayer. We are in communion with them as if they are with us, because they are with us.
During the long American election these past few days you may have heard of the election in North Dakota of Mr David Andhal. The surprising thing was that sadly he had died in October, may he rest in peace. Due to local Law, he was still on the ballot for election and, yes, he was duly elected. I am not sure what to make of all that other than this: Why not? I mean, why not?
You could say that this election is a secular expression of the value of those who have died and that our relationship with them is real, valued and carries on.
My dear brothers and sisters, if that is the secular view of democracy in North Dakota, well how much more for us Christians is our loving relationship with our brothers and sisters who have died, in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Our relationship with those who have died should be as natural and familiar as if they are alive with us. Because they are alive with us. They pray for us and love us and we pray for them and love them.
So finally, just as the Lord has called them, he will call us to his celebration. So in our prayers today and throughout November, let us stand ready to be with the Lord and let us pray for those who have died. May they all rest in peace. Amen.