Makes the Absent Present
Sermon for the Commemoration of All Souls
Preached on November 2, 2016 at Jesus Our Savior Catholic Church, Morehead KY
Readings: Isaiah 25:6, 7-9; Psalm 23:1-3a, 3b-4, 5, 6; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; John 11:17-27
It is Christmas Eve 1943. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes a letter to his niece Renate and her husband Eberhard Bethge. He is in prison for his staunch resistance to the Nazis and he wants to share something that he hopes will console his family during the time that he cannot be with them. He writes:
“Nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute; we must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; He doesn’t fill it, but on the contrary, He keeps it empty and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain” (Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, p. 176).
Bonhoeffer here is writing about a separation caused by war and imprisonment, but he might as well have been talking about the separation that is brought about by the death of a loved one. His words ring true for those of us who have been shackled by sorrow: nothing indeed can make up for the absence of someone whom we love. No words, no memento, no rite can bring any of them back and all that we have left is that gap between us.
Perhaps, that is why there is nothing that can test our faith more than the death of a loved one. Nothing else hits us right where it hurts and leaves us completely helpless. It seems to give us no other choice but to accept our loss, to admit that our loved ones are no longer with us.
But, Bonhoeffer points out that such a separation presents us with two other alternatives: we can either let absence make our hearts grow fonder or we can let absence make our hearts forget.
Our Catholic tradition offers us a way out of our grief. It is not the path of forgetfulness; rather, it is the path of remembrance. That is why as Catholics we offer memorial Masses for our beloved dead and we light votive candles in their memory. We bury them in consecrated places and mark their graves because we dare not depend on our own fickle memory to remind the world that they have left behind a mark in our lives. We celebrate them on this feast of All Souls and we ask them to pray for us as we continue to pray for them.
Our Catholic Faith is all about memory. It is not about amnesia, which in Greek literally means ‘no memory;’ it is about anamnesis: remembering again and again. It is the command of the Lord at the Last Supper: “Do this in memory of me” (Lk. 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24). Throughout the Eucharistic Prayer at Mass, we keep hearing the word ‘remember.’ As we remember the mysteries of our Faith, we ask the Lord to remember His Church, those who are living and those who have died. There is pain in that remembering—the Passion and Death of the Lord—but there is also joy—His Resurrection. At every Mass, we remember that mixture of sorrow and joy to help us in our sorrow and point us to the promise of joy.
This is one of the mysteries of the Mass: how the most sacred of memories makes the absent present. The more we remember, the deeper we are drawn into Holy Communion with the Lord who draws us into communion with all who are in communion with Him. Bonhoeffer is right: the Lord does not fill the gap between us and those who are no longer with us; instead, He bids us welcome into the one banquet that brings us all together.