Death’s a strange creature. We only know it from a distance; our own death is something we can only imagine. An ancient philosopher, trying to calm the fears of his students once said that death is not to be feared, since when we’re around, death isn’t; and when death’s around, we aren’t. So what’s there to fear?
The Christian view of death is of course, quite different; it’s one of hope and trust. It speaks of a “passage”, not an “end”. It speaks more of a promised future than a completed past. Today’s commemoration of all souls witnesses to this fact.
"Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains just grain of wheat. But if it dies it bears much fruit." Death is our gateway to glory. "It is the supreme festival on the way to freedom", as the theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer says. Really?
Who remembers Bernard Connelly? [He’s one of the students buried in the American College plot in Park Abbey cemetery in Louvain. He was a seminarian who died in Belgium, years ago.] How about Joseph Nuttin? Who remembers him? He’s buried in a neighboring plot, also at Park Abbey. [He was a professor at the university.] We used to visit their graves during All Souls’ Day when we were students in Louvain; we’d say prayers for them and all the other students and professors of the seminary and university who have died over the years.
They’re fortunate to still have their names etched on tombstones. What of the others? Who now remembers those countless millions, nameless and faceless who died loving Christ and serving others throughout the ages? Even we who remember our own dead can only think and refer to this now anonymous crowd under the traditional collective term—“faithful departed”. It’s rather difficult to hold onto a promise of glory when you know there won’t be anyone left to remember you at some far distant future. For a handful of human beings, I guess it isn’t a problem. The more famous ones among us go down in history and are remembered—as two dimensional characters in history books. Is this the glory promised by Christ? I certainly hope not.
“The most powerful signs efface themselves”, says the philosopher, Paul Ricoeur. Today’s commemoration of the dead reminds us of this fact. Sir Lawrence Olivier was once asked why he became an actor and he answered: “Look at me; look at me; look at me”. Robert, a priest I met at The Hague many years ago also gave me that answer when I asked him why he decided to become a priest.
I suppose that could also be said for many of us. We have gifts and talents, strengths and abilities we are proud to be able to share them. And that’s fine; the problem is, when the “I” is gone, there’s nothing left to look at, except perhaps a trace, which only gets dimmer as time go by.
The glory of which today’s Gospel reading speaks and is promised to us Christians is the glory of Christ who suffered, died, and rose again. We’re baptized into it. Now for John, Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, though temporally distinct, are not three separate episodes. They’re part of one piece, a seamless garment revealing the glory of Christ. For John, Christ’s glorification is not an ‘after-effect’ of his death, and his death is not a mere ‘prelude’ causing or leading to his glorification. His death is his glorification. In his destruction and effacement lies Christ’s true power and glory.
The most powerful signs efface themselves. A Christian, initiated into the Body of Christ is initiated into Christ’s death. Dietrich Bonhoffer could not have put it more powerfully. He says: “When Christ bids you come, he bids you come and die”. What kind of death? Death to self.
The most powerful signs efface themselves. It’s easy to fall into the danger of wanting to save the world and putting ourselves in the forefront of salvation history. No need, the world was saved two thousand years ago. We’re not asked to do it again.
It’s easy to despair that our effort to change the world is often frustrated, our voices, silenced by a world so eager to prove itself right by proving us wrong. Does it matter? Hardly. For we know that nothing we do is ever in vain. Our glory is not measured by our success. Instead it lies in the realization that our Redeemer lives.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies it bears much fruit.” The faithful departed whom we remember today remind us that our true glory is in the person of Christ. It is not ourselves we proclaim, but him who sends us. We are not the sun, simply the moon reflecting the sun’s light. We are not the entire score, simply a note in the eternal melody, a line in the verse of God’s everlasting poetry.
Our hope of everlasting life is in our sharing in Christ’s death; our power in the losing and effacing of ourselves in order that Christ may be known; our glory in our being part of the Body of Christ our Head. The most powerful signs efface themselves. The faceless and nameless and now voiceless crowd whom we remember today speaks eloquently of this fact.