November 1st has always been celebrated as All Saints’ Day when Christians remember their communion with all the saints, the unity of God’s people in this world and the next. November 2nd is also celebrated as All Souls’ Day when Christians commemorate all the Faithful Departed, holding their lives in our memory. In the Mexican culture it is known as the Day of the Dead, when families take the day off to picnic at the graves of their families which are specially decorated and refurbished for the occasion. Homes and churches decorate special altars with photos of the deceased and other memorabilia. The Archbishop celebrates Mass in the Catholic cemetery. Bakeries produce Day of the Dead bread and other special food to be consumed around the graves.
The Gospel assures us of continuity of life between this world and the next. We believe in the overlapping reality of this life and the kingdom of heaven. When, therefore, our Faithful Departed – those who die in Christ – leave us, we believe that they do not lose consciousness of our presence, as we do not lose consciousness of them. Just as we do not forget them, we are not blotted out from their memory. Surely, despite their absence, they have not lost knowledge of us. If God is a God of love, and is essentially a God of relationships, he would not eternally sever the ties that bind us together. We place photographs of our loved ones around our homes to continually remind us of their presence. We have memorabilia that remind us of what they mean to us: a ring your mother or grandmother wore and passed on to you, a chair they sat in, a tie your father wore, a coat you have not discarded, a watch and other family heirlooms, a crystal decanter, family china, a painting that reminds you of their home.
But how do they remember us? How can they keep us in their hearts? How can they follow our lives? What does it mean that we are “surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses”? (Hebrews 12:1) Just as the distant clouds hover over the landscape, can they see us from on high? Are they not cheering us on from the bleachers of heaven as we run the race marked out for us? Revelation 6:9-11indicates that the Faithful Departed are alive and conscious of us.
When we travel great distances and settle in another location, we do not forget the life we led elsewhere. Our past is not obliterated by our journey. We are still the same person. Our past is not blotted out by the change of environment. Those who have lived and died in the cause of God’s kingdom will see the fruits of their labor. They will rejoice in the fulfillment of their endeavors. Surely also, a mother or father, who has planned great things for their children, and died before they were fulfilled, should be able to see the answer to their prayers and be satisfied?
Continuity between this world and the next is intimated in what happened on the Mount of Transfiguration. In Jesus we see the overlap of the two ages. He was in constant touch with the unseen world of the spirit. He was the transmitter of the power and presence of God to those around him. Angels ministered to him. The heavens opened above his head. The voice of his heavenly Father was heard calling him the Beloved Son of God. The veil between the worlds was lifted in his words and works. He was the visible link between the two ages. In the Transfiguration he passed for a brief moment into the spiritual sphere and was seen by his disciples. “There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.” (Matthew 17:2,3)
What were these inhabitants of the kingdom of heaven talking about with Jesus? We can speculate that they were asking him to fill them in on what they had looked forward to in his coming to his kingdom. “They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:31) What they had begun in their day was about to be fulfilled by Jesus in Jerusalem. If they were concerned about the fulfillment of their plans and purposes, how much more will we, when we have joined them in glory, be similarly interested in our friends and loved ones.
This understanding may be at variance from those who think that in heaven we will be so absorbed in the contemplation of God, or the celebration of his praise, or the enjoyment of our own fulfillment, that we will be removed far above former relationships and earthly considerations. While this sounds spiritual, it is not practical or realistic. Suppose that you had to leave the country and emigrate to another in order to provide for your family. Your efforts result in great prosperity. Would not your first thought be of your family whom you had to leave behind? Would you not want to share with them your wealth? Would not your thoughts and prayers be with them? Is not this kind of love the surest evidence of communion with God? You would not be selfish enough to forget them.
It is argued that if the Faithful Departed live in constant sympathy with us in our trials and temptations on earth, they could not enjoy heaven. It they see our afflictions and sorrows, our failings and weaknesses, our physical dangers and pains, would they not be able to enter into the joy of heaven? Would we choose that our friends be cut off from all knowledge of us by the thick veil of death than that they should see us and suffer? But do peace and suffering have to be mutually exclusive? God has not been secluded and protected from all knowledge of human life through the ages. He has heard the cry of the miserable. That was why he sent his Son to die for us. Christ rose from the dead and sat at the right hand of God on High, and yet he also shares in all the labors and pains of his followers. Pity and sympathy do not contradict spiritual joy. They are two of its elements.
The Faithful Departed regard life with other eyes than ours. From our standpoint, in this world, suffering seems an unmixed calamity. With their clear vision looking from eternity they see where all things are going. They can see the fulfillment of the process of soul-making. They see indeed that all things work together for good to those who love God. They see the end, the goal, of all things. They see life whole. They see the rewards for all their labor. They see the prodigal son, not only in the misery of the far country, but also at home enjoying the love of his father. When we are suffering in surgery, they will not be in despair for us, for they see us again healed and strong. They can glory in afflictions because they see in them their reward.
The conviction that the Faithful Departed are not dead, or unconscious, or indifferent to us, but are alive for evermore, full of activity and constantly mindful of us, invests the unseen world with reality, so that we are notrepelled by the thought of an unknown, fearful, world to come. We will recognize those whom we remember and would wish to see again. They are living there as they did in our homes, they are thinking of us as of old; they are ready to give us welcome; they will have much to tell us.
In the witness of the Faithful Departed is one of the strong encouragements of life. We need not fear that they regard us with critical and censorious eyes as we toil and strive. They have been where we are. They now have the infinite mercy and love of God in them. They continually believe in us as does our Lord. They expect much from us and pray for us. They reach out to us and will welcome us as we reach the goal and receive the crown of life which God has awarded to all who have longed for his appearing. We take comfort from them.
(This presentation includes material from THE POTTER’S WHEEL, Ian Maclaren [John Watson], 1898)