All Souls, 2022

Tags: service sermon

Fr Bosco Peters presided and preached for All Souls, on Wednesday night. He reflected on the history of All Souls, its revival in Anglican circles in the wake of the First World War, the enrichment of our understanding of death from Tikanga Māori, and the raising of Lazarus.

Read on for the sermon.


In the 10th century there was a massive new movement which changed the shape of monasticism in Western Christianity. Before this, St Benedict’s Rule had visualised a life where each community, each monastery, would have, say a dozen monks living a simple life of work and prayer. Now in the 10th Century, at Cluny – I’m sure some of you have been there – it’s 11km South of Taizé - at Cluny a monastery was founded that focused primarily on grand, dramatic liturgy. No more living off the land by the daily labour of the monks own hands – sensational, impressive liturgy was their work.

The church at Cluny was 170 meters long – just to give you the impression, that’s nearly 5 times the length of St Michaels, 2.5 times cathedral in square, twice length of the cathedral in Wellington. Until the present St Peter’s was built in Rome in the 16th century, Cluny’s church was the largest building in Europe. There were about 10,000 monks at Cluny and its dependent houses. In today’s proportions that would be about 120,000 monks today.

Such a vast, wealthy monastic empire needed highly affluent benefactors, and so Abbot Odilo, the fifth Abbot of Cluny set aside the day after All Saints as a day when the monks would pray for the souls of all the deceased benefactors – All Souls.

This commemoration spread rapidly throughout Western Christianity. There were obviously abuses – I’ve already hinted at some of the issues - and at the Reformation the celebration of All Souls was removed from the Calendar. The celebration of All Saints was seen as covering All Souls with the New Testament referring to all Christians as “saints”.

But then came the first World War. Of the 60 million soldiers who fought in the First World War, over 9 million were killed 6,000 soldiers died each day of the war. As an aside, NZ had the highest ratio of deaths in the Commonwealth.

Because of these waves upon waves of death, our natural human disposition to remember and pray for those who have died surfaced in a stream of Christian grief, and in the 1928 revision of the Book of Common Prayer the celebration of All Souls was restored and prayers for the dead became part of the revisions.

The revised funeral service now included: Rest eternal grant unto them O Lord and let light perpetual shine upon them. And other prayers like that form part of the 1928 BCP and onwards into subsequent revisions in the Anglican Communion worldwide including our own Prayer Book.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, we are enriched by Tikanga Māori’s strong and constant connection with and acknowledgement of those who have died. As we walk day by day into our future, we do not forget those who have died as if they are behind our back. Rather than the pakeha image of walking forwards into the future, Māori have, I think a better metaphor: we are looking at those who went before us and walking backwards into the unknown future.

Those who struggle with praying for the dead misunderstand what prayer is. Prayer isn’t about changing God’s mind, as if we know better than God what is best for people and for the world. Prayer is, on the one hand, our growing in aligning ourselves to the mind and will of God, and on the other hand it is a manifestation of the Incarnation: God will not act without our human cooperation.

The love and care and prayer that we share with people in what the Apostles Creed calls the church – the communion of saints – those alive and those who have died – this love and care and prayer does not cease at death.

Contemporary philosophers and sociologists describe humans as “beings-toward-death.” Humans live with the dread of death; humans attempt to deny death; and so on. Jesus, as presented in today’s Gospel in the story of the resurrection of Lazarus is transforming us from “Beings-toward-death” into a “Beings-toward-life.”

This is not a belittling of grief. Jesus himself wept as he stood by Lazarus’ tomb even as he knew Lazarus was about to be brought back to life. Our grief at death is deep and profound. We do not deny death – as so much of our surrounding culture does.

The story about Lazarus isn’t part of Jesus simply wowing the crowd with some seemingly impossible things. Lazarus would still die again some day.

The heart of the story is not the miracle of transformation in Lazarus; the heart of the story is the miracle of transformation in us.

Lazarus has a new lease on living, on living resurrection life now. “I am the resurrection and the life” says Jesus.

Eternal life in John’s Gospel isn’t just something that happens to us after we die. We have begun a journey of becoming “Beings-toward-life.”

In that, grief is real, and we do not ignore it; we do not shy away from grief; we are honest about our grief. And we, along with those who have died, with the Risen Jesus in our midst and at this table, we are right to remember and pray for each other – including for those who have died, whom we also are right to believe continue their love, concern, and prayer for us.

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