ALL SOULS DAY
Isaiah 25:6, 7-9
2 Corinthians 5:1, 6-10
Luke 23: 44-46, 52-53; 24:1-6a
The Church’s prayer for the dead has, for centuries, been crystallized in a single verse drawn from second chapter of the little known Fourth Book of Esdras. Even non-believers know at least the first word of the introit of the Mass of the Dead: Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine: et lux perpetua luceat eis. “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them” (cf. 4 Es 2:35). The word “requiem” has passed from sacred usage into the secular realm, becoming part of the vocabulary of poets and novelists, of dramatists and journalists.
The Requiem Mass has inspired some of the greatest music of Western civilization, beginning with the incomparable Gregorian Requiem and flowering into hundreds of other settings: Berlioz, Brahms, Britten, Duruflé, Fauré, Mozart, Verdi and, in our own day, John Rutter. Each year, during the month of November, I try to listen again to the various settings of the Requiem Mass, allowing their beauty to sink into my memory and, in some way, to nourish my prayer for the dead.
The Fourth Book of Esdras is an attempt to sort out life’s huge questions: the goodness of God and the evil ever present in the world; the hope of immortality and the harsh reality of death; the meaning of suffering and faith in God’s mercy. It is a pity that, apart from the single verse taken up by the Liturgy of the Dead, most Catholics are unfamiliar with the Fourth Book of Esdras. The month of November is the perfect time to read it. You can find it in the RSV listed among the apocryphal books and in the supplement to the Vulgate.
A Vision of My Splendour
Esdras speaks to Israel in the name of God, saying, “Care for the injured and the weak, do not ridicule the lame, protect the maimed, and let the blind have a vision of my splendour. Protect the old and the young within your walls. When you find any who are dead, commit them to the grave and mark it, and I will give you the first place in my resurrection. Pause and be quiet, my people, because your rest will come” (2 Es 2:20-24). It is this promise of rest — refreshment, light, peace, and wholeness — that is echoed today, again and again, in the prayer of the Church for the dead.
Proclaim Mercy: My Grace Will Not Fail
Through the liturgy, Esdras’ word to Israel becomes a word addressed today to the Church: “Rejoice, O mother, with your children, because I will deliver you, says the Lord. Remember your children that sleep, because I will bring them out of the hiding-places of the earth, and will show mercy to them; for I am merciful, says the Lord Almighty. Embrace your children until I come, and proclaim mercy to them; because my springs run over, and my grace will not fail” (2 Es 2:30-32).
In the end, Esdras message is addressed to all nations. “Wait for your shepherd; he will give you everlasting rest, because he who will come at the end of the age is close at hand. Be ready for the rewards of the kingdom, because perpetual light will shine on you for evermore” (2 Es 2:33-35). There you have it: the verse that has for centuries expressed the Church’s prayer for the dead and inspired so many musical settings. The Church, having heard this one line, repeated it until it became in her heart and in her mouth the prayer that we know and make our own today: “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.”
At the Feast of the Lord
The prophecy of Esdras culminates in a vision of the heavenly Jerusalem. “Flee from the shadow of this age, receive the joy of your glory; I publicly call on my saviour to witness. Receive what the Lord has entrusted to you and be joyful, giving thanks to him who has called you to the celestial kingdoms. Rise, stand erect, and see the number of those who have been sealed at the feast of the Lord. Those who have departed from the shadow of this age have received glorious garments from the Lord” (2 Es 2:36-39). The images here are almost eucharistic. They send us to the altar for the Great Thanksgiving. “Be joyful, giving thanks to him who has called you to the celestial kingdoms” (2 Es 2:37).
Saddened by the Certainty of Dying
The Great Thanksgiving begins today in a Preface that is nothing less than luminous — luminous with the blessed hope of eternal life. It places on the lips of the priest words about the mystery of death that leave even the most gifted poets, speechless. “In Christ Jesus there has dawned for us the hope of a blessed resurrection, so that those who are saddened by the certainty of dying may be consoled by the promise of the immortality to come.”
The Return of Black Vestments
The Church in no way denies the terrible sadness of death; she solemnly acknowledges it. Paul VI said that nothing of what is human is foreign to the Church. The grief caused by death is deserving of respect. This explains in part, I think, the widespread return to the use of black vestments for the Requiem Mass by the younger generation of priests. (Black vestments were never suppressed; the possibility of using them is conserved in the latest edition of the Roman Missal.)
There has been for some time a tendency, even in the liturgy, to skip over the very human sentiment of horror in the face of death. Contemporary culture — a culture of death marked by war, abortion, euthanasia, and other forms of violence — paradoxically persists in denying death, in trying to sanitize, cosmetologize, and conceal it. The bodies of aborted children — termed biological waste — are disposed of with the most frightful efficiency. The intimate care of loved ones after death is entrusted to professionals. Increasingly in hospitals, immediately after death the curtains are drawn around the bed and the body is removed to the morgue while grieving family members are ushered into a private room. One wonders if these things are about hiding death from people or about people hiding from death.
Grieve in Hope
Before moving on to hope in the resurrection, one must come to terms with the mystery of death. The age–old liturgical traditions of the Church respected the human need to face death, to acknowledge its horror, to grieve, to weep and, at the same time, to confess an unshakeable faith in eternal life. Saint Paul never said that we are not to grieve over our dead; he said rather that we are not to grieve “as others do who have no hope” (1 Th 4:13).
Only now are we beginning to appreciate the extraordinary wisdom expressed by the paradoxes of the traditional liturgy of the dead: a priest standing at the altar clad in black vestments — the sign that the Church takes death very seriously and refuses to minimize the grief of her children — and, at the same time singing of the triumph of hope. The notes of the Preface of the Dead rise like the dawn over a dark horizon.
Changed, Not Ended
The Preface makes this bold and wonderful affirmation: “The life of those who are faithful to you, Lord, is but changed, not ended; and when their earthly dwelling-place decays, an eternal home is made ready in heaven.” These are the very words that will, in all likelihood, be sung from the altar when before it each one of us will lie in the cold sleep of death. We do well to listen to them now, to repeat them, pray them, and hold them in our hearts. I can think of no better way to fulfill the injunctions of Saint Benedict in the Holy Rule: “To yearn for eternal life with all possible spiritual desire” (RB 4:46) and, “To keep death daily before one’s eyes” (RB 4:47).
The Meaning Behind Every Requiem
The eternal life for which we yearn is given us already in the mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood. The death we keep daily before our eyes holds no terror for us now, because, in the Eucharist, we keep before our eyes another death, that of Jesus Christ. His death is the death of death and, for us, the sure promise of eternal rest, of refreshment, life, and peace. This is the meaning behind every Requiem, the mystery that allows us to say with an irrepressible hope: “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.”