In the Northern Hemisphere nature continues, just about, to parade her autumn splendour but will soon be completely stripped for the winter months ahead. It is a dead time, the fag-end of the year, short evenings and cold mornings, days neither wet nor dry, the sun trying to break through. ‘The end is nigh’, we might be tempted to cry, as nature retreats underground. The political situation in the Middle East and its implications for the rest of the world serves this year to strengthen our feelings of gloom and uncertainty, of fear and anxiety.
This dead month of November is the month of the dead. Remembrance Sunday comes with its quiet solemnity, its sad memories of young lives cut short, the tragic waste of human life that the last century saw and that, sadly, continues. At Mass all this month we remember the dead, all those we have loved, young and old. Some died in the fullness of their years, others before their lives were fully underway. We remember all who have gone before us, parents, children and friends whom we continue to mourn and whom we continue to miss.
On the banks of the river Boyne, north of Dublin, stands a structure older than the pyramids. The passage grave or tumulus at Newgrange was constructed some five thousand years ago. Its builders were preoccupied with winter and with death. Above the entrance to the passage there is a small opening through which the sun shines on the morning of 21 December, its rays penetrating some fifty feet to the inner chamber where the ashes of the dead were kept. It is an extraordinary construction that required painstaking and precise work and nobody knows for sure what it means.
At Newgrange the mid-winter sun reached—and still reaches—deep within the earth to illuminate the place of the dead. Because of this some think it is a very ancient expression of hope in an after life. In the moment when the northern hemisphere is at its lowest point these primitive but sophisticated people looked, it seems, to the return of the sun, to a light illuminating the winter darkness, to some way in which the life-giving rays of the sun might reach the place of the dead.
We stand on firmer ground when we read the Book of Daniel, written a century and a half before the birth of Christ. It contains the first clear enunciation in the Bible of belief in the resurrection of the dead. ‘Those who lie sleeping will awake’, it says, the just to receive the reward of ‘everlasting life’ (Daniel 12.2). It is also the first time that the phrase ‘everlasting life’ occurs in the Bible. Those who have taught others goodness and virtue will ‘shine like stars for all eternity’. This is quite a change from the grey and mouldy Hades of which the earlier Hebrews spoke, a place of ghosts, neither alive nor dead, an in-between place not reached by God’s light and from which God is not praised.
The firmest ground of all is the Christian hope in the resurrection of the dead founded on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In one of the earliest New Testament texts to witness to this hope Saint Paul says ‘we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and that it will be the same for those who have died in Jesus: God will bring them with him’ (1 Thessalonians 4.14).
There is an end time to which we look forward which will not be a November end, nor a winter time of mourning and tears. Even in these dog days of the year’s decline we look forward to an eternal spring in which all that has been sown in tears will be reaped in joy. Much has been wasted, much has been left unfinished, much has already been surrendered to death. But nothing is lost because Jesus Christ ‘has offered one single sacrifice for sins and then taken his place forever at the right hand of God’ (Hebrews 10.12). When the Son of Man comes in power and glory he will send out his angels ‘to gather his chosen from the four winds’ (Mark 13.26-17.
For the present we wait as we protect ourselves from the wintry chill. At Mass each day during November the ‘Book of the Dead’ is placed on the altar. We hope that all whose names are entered there—together with all our deceased relatives and friends—also have their names inscribed in the Lord’s ‘book of life’ (Daniel 12.1). We pray that their good deeds have gone with them and that when winter has passed they will shine like stars for ever and ever (Daniel 12.3).
Another homily for All Souls, from 2012, may be found here.