Vicar’s sermon: All Souls’ Day 2022

On holiday last week I read the novel Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss. I won’t give any spoilers this evening lest you decide to read it yourself but it’s about a family that go through a really traumatic time. As they do so, the narrator (the father in the story) is preparing for a lecture he is to give about Coventry Cathedral. Perhaps you’ve visited the cathedral but, in case you haven’t, it was built after the war and opened by the Queen at the end of the 1950’s and it stands next to the ruin of the medieaval Cathedral that was destroyed alongside much of the city at the height of the blitz. In the novel the  description of the building of the Cathedral parallels the reconstruction of the family after the trauma they have endured.

Perhaps Coventry cathedral is most well known for the huge tapestry that hangs at the east end of the building. The tapestry is by Graham Sutherland and portrays Christ, seated on a throne with the symbols of the four Gospel writers around Him.  I say it is hung at the ‘east end’ of the Cathedral. Most churches (like this one) are built on a ‘west to east’ axis, facing the rising sun. I learned from my novel that the new cathedral in Coventry is unusual in being built north to South – at a right angle to the ruined old building: maybe that’s why its focal point is a tapestry rather than a window that would only receive pale northern light through it.

The rear of the building however is made up almost entirely of glass. And the glass is filled with etched glass figures of saints and angels that are flooded with the light coming from the south. (I learned that these figures were designed by two students at the Royal Academy – just imagine your work being picked for a building that will stand for hundreds of years?)

A glass wall, etched glass figures of the saints and angels through which Christ is visible: picture it if you can.  As you walk from the ruins of the old Cathedral towards the new that’s the image that you see. The new building growing out from the old. Christ in glory, seen through the glass window with its Saints and angels. You then enter through the ‘south door’ of the cathedral, past the figure of the Archangel Michael overcoming Satan who lies at his feet so that in the nave you join the worship of the people of God cheered on by the saints and angels in the west window behind you as the curch militant (those of us here on earth) joins with the church triumphant (those who have gone before us) in the worship of God in Christ.

Pretty well everyone here has come to remember someone precious to them whose death (whether in recent months or many years ago) has left them laid low. Our first reading from the book of Lamentations expressed something of that sense of loss: ‘My soul is bereft of peace: I have forgotten what happiness is. I say ‘Gone is my glory, and all that I have hoped for from the Lord’.  The writer of Lamentations is mourning the destruction of his city, Jerusalem, but his words speak for all who have been bereaved. So much that has been precious to you has gone from your lives with the death of a parent or friend, a brother or sister, a partner, husband, wife or child. Life cannot be the same again. Death robs us of so much, it steals a hoped for ‘future’ that we might have shared with our loved ones. Life has taken a different turn. Everything has shifted now Mum has gone…or Dad is no longer with us. We had not thought we would lose them so suddenly. I suppose that (like the building of the new Cathedral in Coventry), starting again, rebuilding our lives is slow work, it is by no means easy, it can be painful and difficult, we can feel all at sea without the person who anchored our families and closest relationships. The past is still present to us but working out what shape our lives might take now is hard. In our second reading Jesus invited us to place our trust in Him: he said ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him who he has sent’.  In Coventry Cathedral the sheer size of Sutherland’s tapestry demands our attention. As Coventry’s people rebuilt their lives (ruined buildings scarring the cityscape for years to come) the Cathedral’s message was that ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.’  He is present to us. We find purpose and meaning in relation to Him. Look towards Him and allow your relation to Him to reshape your life: the assurance in the reading was that he cares for us and will sustain us. ‘I am the bread of life’ he said, ‘whoever comes to me will never be hungry, whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

And what of our loved ones, those we mourn and remember tonight? Well firstly, think again of those etched glass windows at the far end of Coventry Cathedral. As you look into the Cathedral from the outside you see the figure of Jesus beyond, through the pictures of the saints and angels. To me this is  a reminder that all of our lives can reflect the image of Christ who is above and beyond us: all of our lives are in some way ‘see through’ – allowing people to catch a glimpse of Jesus through us. Here at Saint Mary’s we have pondered and created a new ‘strap line’ to describe what we are about, what we think we’re here for. It is, quite simply, this: ‘Celebrating God’s Love’.  The temptation for people of faith is to turn God’s love into something abstract: an idea that is difficult to grasp- whereas our bible reading told us that God’s goodness and generosity is much more than an idea – it becomes embodied in the person of Jesus who said ‘I am the bread of life’.

But that overflow of God’s goodness, creativity, generosity, grace, lovingkindness and faithfulness which we see in Jesus isn’t limited to Him alone even if it is most perfectly expressed through His life. We’re here because we have seen the life and light of God’s goodness in the lives of those who are precious to us. None of us is perfect, we know this, but all of us (in our own unique ways) reflect the image of God. In our marriages and with our partners, in our care for our children or parents, in our work and amongst our friends, in our passions, through our gifts and abilities, our conversation and sense of humour God makes Himself known to us. Every life a gift. Every life reflecting something of the life of God. That is why our mourning is tempered with thanksgiving – for we remember so much that was good in the lives of our dear ones.

And there is more, for nothing, and no-one, is lost to God. Hear Jesus’ words again: ‘This is the will of Him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up at the last day.’ Our Christian faith is built upon the faithfulness and love of God most perfectly expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We believe that it is God’s will that one day we will all be raised – transformed from glory to glory – to praise His name. Our scriptures give us images of what that might be like as they reflect on the resurrection of Jesus. Our great churches (Coventry Cathedral amongst them) try to offer us a vision of hope and resurrection. And each week, here in church, we’re reminded that in worship we are both close to God but also close to all those who have gone before us for we gather ’with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven’ to show forth God’s love in our lives and to praise His name. To Him be all glory, might, dominion and power now and in all eternity.

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