We inhabit one country, which is the church.
All Souls Day: 2 November, 2018
Alae Taule’alo, Lay Minister of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
I’m going to start today’s homily with a gentle provocation. Most of the church is already dead.
This isn’t a reference to the familiar debate about the decline of the church in our time, a debate framed in terms of declining numbers in the pews or the church’s diminishing prestige in the public sphere.
No, this is a reference to our understanding, informed by Sacred Tradition, of the church existing in three states at once: the church militant on earth, the church penitent that has died, but which awaits final union with God in Paradise, and the church triumphant that is in full union with God.
One might visualise the three states of the church as a human chain crossing a treacherous river: the church militant holding the line on one bank, the church penitent flirting with hypothermia in the cold current, and the church triumphant drying out on the opposing bank.
Crossing the river to the other side, the side of warmth and safety, is the destination to which all the toil of the church is directed.The different links in the chain are entirely inter-dependent. Remove one link and the chain breaks.
Yesterday, All Saints Day, we celebrated the church triumphant; the victory of those souls who have crossed the treacherous river. The Feast of All Saints affirms the promise that in paradise the struggles of the church militant give way to the victory of ultimate union with God. The yearning for closeness with God, expressed in Psalm 42 “When shall I come and behold the face of God?” reaches its consummation. The vanguard has triumphed, rebuking our doubts by proving God’s charity.
But today, All Souls Day, is altogether different. The joy of of All Saints Day is replaced by searching, sorrow and the pangs of bereavement. On All Souls Day the church offers a vigil of penitence for itself; a broken and contrite heart and an acknowledgement of our human frailty and our need for God’s mercy.
The Latin antecedent of the English word “penitence” has a few different shades of meaning but in broad strokes it refers to regret, sorrow, lack and absence. From ancient times the church has affirmed that before entering Paradise the souls of the faithful exist in an intermediate state, neither on earth nor in Paradise. Traditionally, we have referred to this state as Purgatorium or Purgatory. Purgatory itself, as the name suggests, refers to a purging or cleansing, in this instance a purging of the church’s corporate soul.
How might we understand this process of purging? Arguably, we experience Purgatorial states of being in the life of church militant.
The feasts and seasons of our church contain not only glimpses into the ultimate joy of the church triumphant, but also darker elements of spiritual struggle: seasons that speak of sorrow and guilt. Seasons that remind us, at times cruelly, of our complete dependence on God.
The seasons of Advent and Lent come to mind, where we prepare for the feasts ahead through acts of penance and self-reflection. We are forced to square with our own frailty, our fundamental creatureliness. The time of feasting can be glimpsed on the horizon, but in the interim lies the struggle to make of ourselves a perfect, living sacrifice that we can offer to God.
Purgatory operates in much the same way. It is, if you will, the Lent of soul. Here, the last barriers to theosis--the process by which we, in a sense, become divine and indivisible from God--are overcome. Before the new clothing of divinity can be assumed, the old clothing of mortality and frailty must be discarded.
This is all well and good, you might say, but where is the triumph of All Saints Day? Are we condemned even in death to confront our own failings?
Also, while striving for spiritual purity may be good for us, what is beneficial isn’t always enjoyable. The idea of a median space between earth and paradise where we shed our old body to take on our new and eternal body, while it may not be catastrophic, it certainly isn’t pleasant.
At the very least, it falls short of our ultimate expectation as faithful Christians, which is indivisible closeness with God.
To this, I say that penitence is often confused as self-denial for its own sake, rather than as work with a purpose--the purpose being intimacy with God. There is no question that struggle and discomfort is unpleasant, but the more the church persists in the work of the soul the closer we become to God.
At its most basic, penitence is the church’s acknowledgement that we depend on God completely. Our acknowledgement of our frailty is not to berate ourselves for not being God-like, but to make clear statements about who God is. Penitence is an acknowledgement that we struggle to be faithful, but with the understanding that God is absolutely faithful. It is an acknowledgement that we have been unjust, but with the understanding that God is fundamentally just. In seeing our deficiencies, we see more clearly that God is our font of strength and completion.
This is true for the faithful departed as it is for the church militant in the here and now.
So much for penitence, which is a gift from God that binds us closer to him. What does All Souls Day say about the church itself?
To me, All Souls Day is a powerful that reminder the church, in its totality of the living and the deceased, is inextricably connected in a relationship of love and mutual need. The human chain I referred to earlier is really a corpus, more than the sum of its parts--indivisible and enduring.
The church is a continuum of what it was and what it will become. What is living is connected to what is not living. What is not living looks forward to what has transcended living and not living--what in Biblical parlance we might call “Eternal Life”.
The original custodians of the land on which this church is built, the Wurundjeri of the Kulin nation, have a concept of country. This concept encapsulates all creation, and asserts that without the totality of creation in situ, there is an chasm of incompleteness that needs to be restored.
Understanding this concept of country has helped me understand how Aboriginal people have experienced their ongoing dispossession. It has also given me a fresh understanding of our catholic ecclesiology.
The church is our country, mystically united in the Body of Christ. All Souls Day uncovers the threads that connect us: the living militant church, with the faithful departed who, like us, look expectantly towards the safety of the enbankment on which God stands faithfully.
The church militant is physically separated from the church penitent and the church triumphant by the barrier of death. But we are nonetheless united in prayer and Eucharistic fellowship.
The Mass we offer tonight comforts and sustains not only to us, it also provides succour for the dead, fortifying and encouraging them in their last steps towards completion in God, bringing to bear the benefits of Christ’s passion in this world and the next. Together, the church militant and the church penitent are powerful enough. Combined with the church triumphant, our prayers are a battering ram against the gates of heaven.
So tonight, I affirm my unity with the dead who, like me, patiently await God, but in a different place and in a different time. I pray for them, particularly people I love who have died, and hope they’ll remember me too when my time comes.
I am reminded of the all people at St Peter’s who have come before me--their sorrows and joys, merits and deficiencies. I’m conscious that I stand on their shoulders. Maybe they pray for me, a relative newcomer in the fold,
Living or dead, saint or sinner, we inhabit one country, which is the church.