The Thin Veil that Clouds our Vision

For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Today the Church invites us to offer our bounden duty and service of prayer and praise to Almighty God, but with particular attention to those whom we love but see no longer.

Every one of us here has been touched by the death of a loved one, and while on the one hand the Church tells us that we are to rejoice in the knowledge that Christ overcame death and the grave, this day reminds us that grief – that sadness and even that deep longing that we feel in the pit of our stomach because of separation from those whom we love is not just legitimate, but is part and parcel of life in this fallen world, marred by sin and corruption.

That longing, that desire to remember those who have died, as painful as it sometimes might be, is actually a gift.  It’s a gift that points us through the pain to the deep reality that every one of us is created for immortality; that while our bodies perish and memories fade, life continues in the nearer presence of the merciful, righteous, and loving God, who alone is the source of life.

Life and Death

We live in a time that is more confused about life and death than ever before.  Confused by conflicting teachings mixed with shreds of science and fear of our own mortality, it seems many of us come to understand life and bodily death as infinitely separate, as categorically different manners of being.

In the eyes of the world around us we’ve come to believe that, once that last breath is drawn, existence itself is somehow cut off.  This plays out most clearly, and is most sad, in the language of our fellow Christians: perhaps we can speak plainly about the life of faith in Christ Jesus, and perhaps we can even speak plainly about the eternal life that comes after future judgment, but the Church has largely fallen subject to the wider culture, in being unable and unwilling to speak with confidence the truths that we proclaim at Easter: that Christ is risen, trampling down death by death, and winning victory over the grave. 

And, if that’s the case, if death is defeated, then our longings to be reunited with those we love are not wrong at all; instead, they’re a foretaste of the eternity that God is calling us to share.

You see, life and bodily death are not categorically different; they are not separated by some chasm of our imagination or even by eternity itself.

Rather, it’s quite the opposite.  Death and life are imminently close.  The veil between our mortality and eternity is infinitely thin, separated at all times, and for all people, by nothing more than a single breath.  There hereafter is not far off, but imminently close.

And, on this side of the veil, we see things dimly.

The Church, as a bride prepared to be united on that long-awaited day, looks to Christ, our loved ones, and our eternal home with vision obscured by the gauzy veil of time.

And, when that last breath, that last beat of temporality is ended, it’s not as though we close our eyes.  No, it’s quite the opposite.  With that last breath, the veil is lifted and it is then that we see fully what we have longed for, it’s then that we ourselves are fully known, and as partakes in the death and resurrection of Christ, it’s then that we are born to eternal life.

What of those who weren’t model Christians?

Of course, there remain hard questions, for the veil – though thin – is real.

We proclaim in our Creed the truth of resurrection and of judgment, and the hope of everlasting life.  But what of those fellow pilgrims through this fallen world for whom, for whatever reason, we don’t feel as though we can boldly claim the assurance of God’s forgiveness.  Those – perhaps even those we love dearly – who had real struggles and real failings; perhaps even hurting those around them.

In times like these, it is of the utmost importance that we remember that none of us earn God’s mercy through good deeds; none of us can earn eternal life.  All who are saved are saved by grace, by Christ who loved us first.

Of course, it’s God’s will that we would grow in the likeness of Christ in this life, that we would follow in the steps of Christ leading us to the new heaven and the new earth, to the very throne of God in the new Jerusalem.  But, lest we prove our own unworthiness, we must remember that, when that veil is lifted, we stand as equals inasmuch as we stand only by the grace of God.

And, of course, as Christ himself tells us, we are called to be faithful, but it’s the master – not us – who will weigh the faithfulness of the servants.  Some are entrusted with only a little with which to be faithful, while some are entrusted with much; whether we lived in faith from birth, or turned to Christ as adults, or whether a wretched soul reached for that extended hand of mercy as the darkness of death itself was falling over their eyes, the reward is not ours, but Christ’s, offered freely as we accept his invitation to share in the victory over death, the resurrection, and the ascension of the very Son of God.

Prayers for those we love but see no longer.

So, tonight, we remember the dead; but not just recalling the happy memories.  Tonight we remember them before God in our prayers and in our worship. 

We pray for them because we still hold them in our love, and because we trust that in God’s presence those who have chosen to serve him will grow in his love, until they see him as he is.[1]

True, when those we love pass through the veil, we see them no more; but that’s when the people of God, throughout history, have confidence that those who have gone before will be caught up with Christ, even those whose faith was unknown to us, or who received the gift of faith at the final hour like the criminal on the cross, who, even that day, was with Christ in paradise.[2]

And, by the mercy of God, we believe that the process of sanctification, the process of being healed and conformed to the image of God, does not end with the wearing out of this frail flesh.  Indeed, how sad would it be if, once the scars and weight of this sinful world are healed, and our vision is unclouded, and we can finally know things as they truly are, how sad would it be if we did not then have the opportunity to go from strength to strength as those redeemed by Christ, growing in grace and love to become more like Christ our Saviour.

Tonight we pray for ourselves, acknowledging our grief and pain, just as we trust that those saints who have gone before are interceding even now for all of us those who are still in their pilgrimage.  And, our prayers for the faithful departed are nothing short of us proclaiming our faith, and our assurance that Christ has destroyed the power of the grave, and has made us partakers through our baptism in that death and resurrection; that we, like them, are united with the whole people of God, so that we, too, may come to that unspeakable joy in that place where nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

So let us proclaim that faith with true hope and full assurance for all who die in Christ, not in sadness, but as those who know that our merciful God has won the victory.

            May the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace.
            And may light perpetual shine upon them.  Amen.

[1] The Catechism of the 1979 BCP.

[2] For a fuller exploration, see N.T. Wright, For All the Saints: Remembering the Christians Departed (Morehouse, 2004).