All Saints Margaret Street | Solemn Evensong & Benediction Sunday 22 July 2012

Sermon for Solemn Evensong & Benediction Sunday 22 July 2012



Readings:  Zephaniah 3.14-end; Mark 15.40-16.7

In this evening’s reading from St. Mark, we see Mary Magdalene in the company of other women who had followed and supported Jesus during his ministry in Galilee, and now , in marked contrast to the male disciples, stand by him on the cross to witness his agonising death.

Mark tells us too that Mary Magdalene was present after Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the Jewish Council, takes courage and asks Pilate for the body of Jesus so that it might be given decent burial. Otherwise, the body of one executed as a criminal might simply have been dumped in a common grave or the rubbish tip.  Joseph reverently wraps it in a linen shroud and then places it in a tomb hewn out of the rock. 

So the body of Jesus is rescued from the fate which befalls so many victims of political violence: we might think of victims of genocide from Stain’s purges and Hitler’s Holocaust, to Bosnia and Rwanda in our own day. 

The burial of Jesus had to be carried out with some haste, before the Sabbath began, and nothing further can be done until it was over.  Then we see Mary Magdalene and the other women coming with spices to complete the rites of burial by anointing the body. That is in the Eastern Church  –  which has never accepted the medieval West’s identification of the Magdalene as a prostitute  –  she and these other women care called the “Myrrh-bearers.”

I have written In the weekly parish email, and Fr. Julian spoke in his sermon this morning about the misidentifications of St. Mary Magdalene. He attributed one of these to a fear of relationships and a denial of the possibility of finding God in them. Tonight, I think we can see another kind of fear being challenged: the fear of death; the attempt to pretend it is other than it really is; to tidy it away and sanitise it.  

It is one of the privileges of Christian ministry to be with people when they are burying the dead. It can be a daunting experience, especially when you are young and newly ordained and have had little personal experience of death and dying.  But it can also be a spiritually enriching experience.

Among the scriptural passages associated with funerals, I have always found a particular poignancy in the simple but lovely accounts of the burial of Jesus in the gospels.  Here at All Saints, we hear them sung at the end of the Passion Gospels on Palm Sunday and Good Friday; we hear them read at Evening Prayer on Good Friday and again at the Liturgy of the Word on Holy Saturday.  If we were Orthodox Christians in the East, we would participate in a service on the evening of Good Friday centred around the epitaphia, a cloth bearing the imaged of the dead Christ. This is processed around the parish before being symbolically buried. 

The two most recent funerals celebrated in this church have had one of those passages as the gospel  –  not because I chose them, but because either mourner or the deceased did. These stories of the burial of Jesus speak to us as we bury our dead or as we face our own death:

  • Their sense of bereavement, the loss not only of a beloved person but of the hope which he embodied for them, speaks to those who mourn the loss of a loved one or who contemplate the end of their own life. 
  • Their reverence and kindness reflect and reinforce the almost universal human instinct to bury our dead with care and decency.
  • Their movement from death and despair to new life and hope, consoles and strengthens us. 

That is why funeral services should be full-blooded affairs with all the repertoire of scripture and sacrament, rite and ceremony, music and hymnody; as they are here at All Saints.  Not for us one of those memorial services or services of thanksgiving with no coffin there to upset anyone; and a discreet veil drawn over the sins of the departed, as if they had been conceived without sin and avoided it for the whole of their lives; or one of those 20 minute affairs at the Crematorium with a Christian hymn replaced by Frank Sinatra’s self-regarding and self-justifying, “I did it my way.”  If I have done it my way, then I will have discovered by then, that the way to salvation is not “my way” but God’s way.

The Church’s funeral liturgy places our stories of grief and loss in the greater context of the death of Jesus, the disciples’ loss, and Christ’s victory over sin and death in the resurrection; in the context of God’s plan for the whole of his creation.

A couple of months ago, in Highgate cemetery, we buried the ashes of one of our parishioners. Because his wife is Jewish, we incorporated in the Church of England’s rites and ceremonies for such an occasion the Jewish prayer for the dead: Kaddish, and the dedication of the memorial stone, said by Rabbi Julia Neuberger of the West London Synagogue.

Kaddish is a prayer which goes back to the time of Jesus himself.  It was not originally for the departed at all, and its content does not refer to them directly.  It comes in various forms and it used in the synagogue liturgy to mark the end of the great series of benedictions  in which God is blessed for a whole variety of his blessings to us.  Kaddish is a prayer for the coming of God’s kingdom of righteousness.

 “Magnified and sanctified be the great name of God

in the world which he created according to his will.

May he establish his kingdom In your life and in your days,

And in the lifetime of all his people:

quickly and speedily may it come; and let us say Amen.”

This is the Jewish prayer which is closest to the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus would have known it by heart and it probably influenced his own prayer: “Hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come.”

The use of this as a prayer for the dead, its daily recitation by a mourner for a whole year, seems to have developed in the Middle Ages. It sets the death of a loved one, parent or child, within the overarching love of God for his people and his purposes for them.

The American literary critic Leon Wieseltier has written a lovely book about his experience of saying Kaddish for a year after his father’s death.  His book, called simply “Kaddish”, is full of wisdom and wit.  Early on, someone who thinks that this previously non-observant Jew might welcome  an easier way to fulfil his filial duty than turning up at synagogue services  everyday, points him to an advertisement offering  the services of someone to do it for him – on payment of a fee of course. 

For Christians this rings a bell, because something very similar went on in the late Middle Ages, after the collective trauma of the Black Death, with the huge proliferation of masses offered for the dead and the selling of indulgences which promised time off purgatory for departed souls.  It was this financial and spiritual racket which the Reformers reacted against and which led to the baby being thrown out with the bathwater, the rejection wholesale of prayer for the dead.

Now, if you attend services here regularly, you will know that we pray for the dead; both when they have just died and also on their anniversaries and on All Souls Day.  This is not because we believe that can bargain with God for the salvation of others. It is because we are those who believe that in Jesus Christ God has given us:

“a true faith and a sure hope” and who pray that he will “Strengthen this faith and hope in us all our days, that we may live as those who believe in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection to eternal life.”

We can pray for those who have died because God is the God of the living and those who live to God are alive to us too in the communion of saints.  As Christ used Mary Magdalene to tell the disciples of his resurrection, so too he is able to use our prayers for “those we love but see no longer” to “work in them the good purpose of (his) perfect will.” 

When we are in the depths of grief, like the women at the tomb, we may find this hard to believe, but in going to the tomb with them, facing the reality of death, we find the risen Christ, and in him with Mary Magdalene we find new life and peace, hope and courage.   



Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses