Almighty God, we remember this day before thee all the faithful departed, and we pray thee that, having opened to them the gates of larger life, thou wilt receive them more and more into thy joyful service; that they may win, with thee and thy servants everywhere, the eternal victory; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Yesterday was All Saints’ Day, when we commemorated all of the saints across the history of the Church. We celebrated their radical devotion to our Lord and the extent to which their lives revealed a deep conformity to the pattern of Christ. But all Christians are members of the Body of Christ -- all have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus and united to him by faith -- whether they lived uniquely saintly lives or just ordinary lives of ordinary faith. And all Christians will one day perish and depart this world. There are countless numbers of them who have died already. And so, it was in the wisdom of the Church that the day following All Saints’ Day was designated for the commemoration of all the faithful departed: All Souls’ Day.
A central purpose of the “requiem mass” that we’re celebrating tonight is to offer our prayers for the dead in Christ. Which may sound a bit strange at first. Certainly, we mourn for our friends and loved ones who have passed away and we remember them fondly. But praying for their souls might not be something that we’re accustomed to. Either way, I want to commend the practice of praying for the faithful departed, especially on All Souls’ Day, for it is a practice that is of immeasurable benefit both to us who mourn and to those who’ve died. Because, even after death, we are still members with them in the mystical Body of Christ; the Body of the one who vanquished death and thus broke down the barrier between us and those who have gone before us.
In his First Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul says that “charity” -- or the love of God -- “suffereth long”; that it “beareth all things” and “endureth all things.” The love of God that has been poured into our hearts is eternal -- just as God is eternal. It abides forever and always. So, when Christians show love to each other, it is far more than merely human affection alone -- though it certainly includes that -- for this love partakes of the love of God. This love, this charity which unites together the members of the Church, therefore extends not only to the living, but also to the dead who die in charity . As Christians, we love our loved ones with a divine charity, and thus when they die, their death is no barrier to the love that we shared with them. It extends beyond death to accompany them even now.
So, when we pray for the faithful departed, we are simply continuing to do what we always do as Christians: we pray for one another; we direct our intentions towards each other’s good. And death is no reason to stop. The love of God which we shared with them in life establishes an unbreakable bond in death, such that they live on in our memories of them in a far more intimate way than in a mere recollection of the past. They are present to us, in that “great cloud of witnesses” -- in the “communion of the saints” -- in part because we remember them in Christ.
But what, exactly, are we praying for when we pray for the faithful departed? In the back of the Prayer Book I use for the Daily Office here, I have a spreadsheet with the names of every departed member of this parish going back to the year 2000, organized by the dates of their deaths. And when I come to the anniversary of their deaths, I pray for them by name with the prayer I began this homily with. I pray that, having opened to them the gates of larger life, God would receive them more and more into his joyful service; that they may win the eternal victory, through Jesus Christ our Lord. This sums up our prayers for the dead. The “joyful service” of God is an infinite service, one into which the faithful departed are received “more and more.” And this progression into the joyful service of God is what is aided by our prayers of charity and intention. God will complete the good work he began in each and every one of us, and this work continues on even after death for the vast majority of Christians. God keeps perfecting us, keeps “receiving us more and more,” until we are made ready to see God face to face. Our prayers for the dead participate in this preparation, for our prayers proceed from the same love of God which prepares them.
Ultimately, it is the Eucharist which reveals this most clearly, for the Eucharist belongs chiefly to the charity which binds the Church together . It is in the Eucharist -- the mass that we are celebrating tonight with special intention for the repose of the souls of the faithful departed -- that we find “Him in Whom the whole Church is united and incorporated, namely Christ,”  as St. Thomas Aquinas puts it. The love of God that we share together between the living and the dead is given to us chiefly in the Sacrament of the Mass, for it is here that we gather with “Angels and Archangels and all the company of heaven” to laud and magnify the glorious name of Almighty God. Our “joyful service” begins here and now in the Eucharist; may God accept our prayers on behalf of the faithful departed for the benefit of theirs. And may they rest in peace. Amen.