May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight: O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…
On Tuesday this week, I attended a very pleasant dinner, which was followed by a lecture on the Lutheran Reformation given by His Grace, Dr Glenn Davies, Archbishop of Sydney. On 31 October, in the year 1517 (precisely 500 years ago on Tuesday), Martin Luther famously nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg. Luther certainly wrote 95 Theses, although many scholars now argue that Luther didn’t actually nail them to anything. But why let the truth get in the way of a good story? Tuesday wasn’t only the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, it was also Halloween or All Hallows Eve. As I left the Rectory on Tuesday evening, I suddenly became aware of several ‘grown-up’ people who were walking around the city dressed as witches, ghosts and other ghoulish characters. As I was dressed in my very best clerical attire, it suddenly occurred to me that they may have thought I too was in fancy dress.
I hope that at least someone admired the authenticity of my ‘no-expense spared’ costume. Halloween, and the fascination with the darker side of death and the afterlife, seems to have gained momentum in recent years. Of course, we will never know if Martin Luther really did drive a nail into the door at All Saints’ Church at Wittenberg, presumable with a faculty. However, the fact that this event supposedly occurred on All Hallows Eve is no mere coincidence.
One of the principal concerns that Martin Luther expressed about the church of his own time was a fascination with the darker and superstitious aspects of death, and the church’s unquestionable exploitation of the good faith of its members. Exploiting the concept of purgatory, which is certainly never mentioned in Scripture, became the means of funding the building of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Praying for departed love ones was not the issue, but paying for them to be released from purgatory led to the great schism in Christian history. Johann Tetzel was a German Dominican friar, who also boasted in the titles ‘Grand Inquisitor of Heresy to Poland’, and later ‘Grand Commissioner for indulgences in Germany’.
Tetzel claimed that, by purchasing an indulgence, the sins of your loved ones would be forgiven and they would be freed from years in purgatory, or ‘Heaven’s waiting room’. Tetzel cleverly convinced countless people of the validity of all of this, partly through catchy little slogans like:
As soon as the gold in the casket rings,
The rescued soul to heaven springs.
As we see in our time, even 500 years later, there is still some fascination with the darker aspects of death. As well also see 500 years later, fear and suspicion can be used to great effect, both politically and religiously. Tetzel managed to use the fear and uncertainty surrounding death very profitably, although what this had to do with the Christian faith is anyone’s guess.
In writing to the Corinthians, Paul the Apostle was aware that some in the members of the church in Corinth had started to question the resurrection of the dead. Paul emphatically stresses that the resurrection, rather than a morbid fear of death, is absolutely central to the Christian Faith: Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where O death is your victory? Where O death is your sting?
Bold and emphatic, though this may be, Paul does not suggest that it easily understood: Listen, I will tell you a mystery!
Mysterious, yes; morbid and frightening, no. We are here today, on what is always a sad day. We are in our black and purple, because the books that will soon be placed on the altar contain the names of those whom we love yet see no longer. Bereavement is a natural human emotion; it is one the unpleasant side-effects of love. However, we do not gather here out of morbid fascination with death or superstition. Rather, we are here to affirm our hope and trust in the resurrection of the dead. And, as is the tradition of this place, we do so around the altar of God, where we gather everyday with the communion of saints, seen and unseen, living and departed.
Today is a very special All Souls Day. A little while ago, we blessed our new Memorial Garden. It is a place associated with death, but a garden is a living thing. It is a place of peace, beauty and life. For reasons that we don’t really understand, the remains of two rectors of this parish were never properly laid to rest. The ashes of these two significant priests in the life of this church were never laid in the earth. Rather, they have been kept in a dark place in boxes—a common practice, but not one that speaks of eternal life. This is particularly concerning given the Eucharistic understanding of Fr Statham and Fr Hope. During their incumbencies, the Eucharistic theology and traditions of this parish were transformed. Fr Statham gave us the St Laurence Chapel, and introduced liturgical innovations such as three sacred ministers at high mass; incense; Gospel processions and the English Hymnal—not bad for the only rector of this church who was a graduate of Moore Theological College. Fr John Hope went even further, introducing Benediction; the Healing Ministry; and the Chapel in the South Aisle, recently beautifully restored.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the incumbencies of these two dedicated priests was the environment in which they ministered. Truly bitter and ongoing disputes with diocesan authorities, which fortunately do not compare in any way with tensions or differences that we experience in our time. During the Great Depression, Fr John Hope established a soup kitchen, despite the fact the parish couldn’t pay its electricity bills.
As they faced world wars, these priests came to understand that the theology of the Eucharist, played out on a grand scale, had even more to say to people in dire need and in sorrow. As we gather here tonight, this is what we celebrate and affirm—that the light and hope of God—our resurrection faith—cannot be defeated by darkness or even death itself.
Fear and sorrow are part of life, but the resurrection is our reason for being. People will always be fascinated and fearful of death. Political and religious leaders will always use fear and suspicion to control others, and capitalise from this control. But the eucharist in which we share again and again is our reminder that we are people of hope. What an extraordinary and humbling privilege it has been this evening to honour two priests who affirmed this reality with immense courage and conviction. As they faced unimaginable challenges and sorrows, they knew that: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust… was only part of the story.
As Fr Statham and Fr Hope would have presided over wartime requiems and many deaths as a result of poverty and hardship, they would have done so with the words: Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life; and:
Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.