It’s one of those days that sticks in my mind: I’d been a pain of a fifteen year-old and had really messed my step-dad around. I was dreading seeing him after he’d finished work, so on his return I was bracing myself to get what was coming to me. It was what happened next that made the day so remarkable – he entered the house, and instead of tearing ten shreds off me, he put his arms around me, and said nothing. It was one of the most unexpected embraces that I’ve ever had – surely I was too old for such affection? And yet, that hug did more to scold, teach and affirm me, then any shouting or punishment.
He is one of the many people we remembered at our Church on All Souls’ Day, when people from across the parish gather to remember and grieve for those we love, yet see no longer.
These days are important, because in a culture of stiff upper lips, polite smiles and making a virtue of busy-ness, All Souls’ states that grief is allowed. So much is going on when a person dies, not merely all the things that must be done, but in ourselves: the sadness that they’re gone; frustration of the things we never did together, the people they’ll not see; annoyance, even anger, when things are left unsaid or unreconciled; fear, now that person has gone, of how that changes me – we were always known as a pair, as a family, so who does that make me now?
It’s right, that we set aside time, when we will stop and recognise what has been lost, who has been lost. But All Souls’ is not only about our grief; it is also about hope.
Hope isn’t the opposite of grief, it doesn’t mean that there is no grief. If we try to pretend there is no grief, all of those feelings we have will find other, less pleasant ways out. Christian hope does not have a short-cut around grief. My understanding of it, is that we cannot truly know hope, if we have not ourselves felt grief. In grief, we realise that humans were not meant to live alone and be self-sufficient: in grief, we mourn those who have gone, and we hold to those who comfort us. In short, we realise how reliant we are on those around us.
Christian hope suggests this to be true, not only in this life, but also in the life beyond life and death. The same comfort we receive in our grieving – the way we are carried by the help and prayers of those around us, that embrace of comfort, is the same embrace that takes our loved ones and, being held in peace, transforms them.
God’s embrace transforms, not in the sense of making one into somebody else, but in making them more fully themselves. It does so because the embrace of God that enfolds all those who die is much like that embrace I described above. It is probably rather unexpected, and may sound strange. Yet, to those who die and enter into God’s arms, it is an embrace that affirms all that is good, gives space to face up to who we have been, and transform us to be those people we always knew we could be. And in our deaths, we will all enter into that embrace alongside our loved ones.
Such will be the surprise and the joy of our union with one another in God, that we will share in those words of Psalm 126: ‘We were like those who dreamed. Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy.’ It is something Kipling expresses beautifully in his poem, The Widower.
As they and we are all changed, so we will share in that peace and fulfillment with one another, and when all things that we know come to an end, so we will, in Christ, gather everything and everyone together in God’s eternity.