Wednesday, 26 October 2011

All Saints, All Souls - All Creation - Maranatha!

"Scholars have long drawn attention to the contrast between the early Christian invocation maranatha and the mediaeval Dies Irae. In the former, there is a joyful hope for the Christ who will come soon, a hope which takes on particular intensity in the early second century Didache with its cry: 'May grace come, and this world pass away.' In the Dies Irae...we hear only for the fear of judgement, which contemplates the End under the appearances of horror and of threat to the soul's salvation. Or again, there is that characteristic motto of mass mission in the 19th and 20th centuries: 'save your soul.' Like a lightning-flash, this motto (shows) how Christianity has been reduced to the level of individual persons, to the detriment of what was once the core of both eschatology and the Christian message itself: the confident, corporate hope for the imminent salvation of the world." - Josef Ratzinger, Eschatology

Just a year ago, I attended a Eucharist for All Souls' Day where a young priest preached about how he was sorry the entire 'All Saints - All Souls' feast sequence had not disappeared with the Reformation. To his way of thinking, which I found to be far off the mark but quite understandable, the feasts imply we aren't all saved, and that "there are saints and super-saints."

Were his memory as long as mine, much less if he'd devoted as much time as I have to studying the mediaeval period, I suppose, with selective theology, that he could have had that impression all the more. One of these days, I just may post a page about the entire history of the concepts of purgatory and indulgences - and how both grew like Topsy (though more in practise than in doctrine.) By the time of the Middle Ages, and largely through the influence of a well-meaning Franciscan pope who extended 'indulgences' to the dead, a huge judicial system, binding on those in the next life, had developed. It was also a hey-day for literature and sermons (probably intended as a treatment of the seven capital sins) about such circles of purgatory and hell as would be glorified in Dante and enjoyed by the lawyer Thomas More some centuries later. Since those in purgatory (the Church Suffering, as opposed to the Church Militant on earth and Church Triumphant in heaven) could not 'merit' for themselves, they were dependent on the prayers and sacrifices of the living... and monasteries were becoming wealthy, and conducting ordinations en masse, through offering Masses for the deceased. It must have been a substantial burden, for those whose families perished in the Plague for example, to multiply alms and sacrifices.

In my own youth, the action of 'offering things up for the poor souls in purgatory' (the super-saints of the Church Militant even made a vow to give all their indulgences to Mary to distribute, and couldn't pray for any intention on their own initiative, which I suppose could have been quite charitable, was still out of hand. One received the impression that one could not pray for anyone who was still living. As long as I'm including quotations today, here is one a little less sublime than that from the Pope. A young nun I knew, Clare, had two small, framed photographs on her shelf, and told me the man in one was her father, who had died a short time ago. I asked if the lady in the other picture was her mother, to which she replied, "Oh, no - my mother is alive."

What I found troubling, both in the sermon I mentioned and the other elements, was the absence of an eschatological focus, as well as a true sense of ecclesiology. I love the two feasts (...and both religious and folk elements of Halloween - don't think I'll miss a party!), and am very glad the days are sequential. Our human nature was deified in the Incarnation - but we still await Christ's final glory, in which we shall share. I dislike the Calvinist view that we are basically obliterated till the Last Judgement (which I see as cosmic redemption, not the equivalent of Dante's shots at his political opponents.) I am not about to speculate on the nature of the after-life, since I cannot even define redemption, creation, resurrection, and the like in this one - we have only a glimpse of the divine. Yet we await that parousia - and this is true for those in the next life as well.

I see God as Creator, and creation as dynamic. I see us as growing in all stages of our existence, naturally including those beyond our time on this earth. I do not see any of this as involving 'punishment' (be kind to Augustine... he was caught up in defending omnipotence, and never knew when to stop when he found he no more had the answer to the problem of evil than does anyone else.) I prefer the Cappadoccian image - love growing ever more white-hot; awareness of the divine never being full, but constantly increasing. Any 'fire' would be, I believe, that of the Burning Bush and other scriptural images - God is the fire, and it is that of revelation and covenant. (Recall that Moses did not burn.)

Forgive the cliché, but on another level, 'we're all in this together.' Every one of us is in the 'all saints' and 'all souls' category. We need for maranatha to predominate, but the Dies Irae has its purposes. Liturgy (and, on another plane, even folk customs, superstition, legends) does well to recall that we do fear the unknown, truly do mourn for those who have passed to the next life. The 'work of the people' needs to admit to our natural fear and grief.

These feasts are a treasure - when the emphasis is eschatology - and that is joyful hope rather than a fear of condemnation.

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