During November we celebrate and remember those who have gone before us. The Church’s festival of All Saints, and the commemoration of All Souls, together sum up our collective and individual memories. We are part of that great communion through time and eternity which is the church of God; we are also still intimately linked with those who have died, whom we ourselves have known and loved. But of course in the lives of our communities both of these are overshadowed by Remembrance, which has grown in significance even as the numbers who served in the World Wars has diminished.
This year everything will be different. The public gatherings on Remembrance will be reduced to a symbolic few, while our services in church continue in a reduced form without congregational singing, touching, sharing the cup or mingling beyond our own household groups. More profoundly even than those changes is what they constantly remind us of, that we are still living with a level of threat to ourselves and to our society which we have not seen for several generations.
As I write, there have been more than 58,000 deaths in the UK in which COVID-19 has been a factor, and 54,000 more than would have been expected. We know, too that in all probability the coming winter will see yet more difficult times.
Christmas will be demanding as we find ways to celebrate the birth of Christ without the normal paraphernalia of packed carol services and Christingle services.
I have recently come back from a mini-sabbatical, during which I spent some time thinking about what it means to live human and humane lives in the midst of a pandemic – my reflections are coming out twice weekly on https://clarkinholyorders.blog/. I hope some of those may be helpful during the coming months.
One of the points I tried to emphasise is that now is not the time for facile optimism. It is a time for the hope which grows out of knowing the reality of the situation we are in. Christian hope shows its true colours exactly when it has few obvious earthly props to rely on. When everything is going swimmingly, hope is easy, and can be shallow. Now we need to return to its deep wells.
Every year, at All Saints, All Souls and Remembrance, the Church tries to help those who come to worship to lift their eyes, to look through and beyond the earthly lives we celebrate and remember, to see the promise of the kingdom of heaven.
All the more so this year as there is so much more to pull us downwards, let us listen to the writer of the letter to the Hebrews: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith … lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather
be healed.” (12: 1, 12-13)