Distant Triumph Song

Revelation 7:9-17

Memorial Sunday is perhaps the most solemn Sunday of the year. Our somber services are on other days of the week - Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday. Sundays, on the other hand, always resonate with the echoes of resurrection. Each one is a little Easter - even the Sundays in the season of Lent are not counted among the forty days of repentance and sacrifice.

Memorial Sunday alone is funereal in spirit. Indeed, just as a typical Sunday is a little Easter, Memorial Sunday is a little Memorial. Only that’s not quite right. Memorial Sunday is an enormous Memorial, one held not in the memory of one dearly departed soul, but every single dearly departed soul that ever lived.

The memorial Sunday sermon is a eulogy for all the saints, who from their labors rest.

When Rich and Meredith and I open our prayerbooks at the beginning of a Memorial Service, we read beautiful words: “Friends, we gather in the protective shelter of God’s healing love. We are free to pour out our grief, release our anger, face our emptiness, and know that God cares. We gather here as God’s people, conscious of others who have died and of the frailty of our own existence on earth. We come to comfort and to support one another in our common loss. We gather to hear God’s word of hope and move us to offer God our praise. We gather to commend to God with thanksgiving the life of our loved one, as we celebrate the good news of Christ’s resurrection. For whether we live or whether we die, we belong to Christ who is Lord, both of the dead and of the living.”

Did you catch it? Even in the midst of our mourning, we speak some remarkably joyous words: Hope. Praise. Celebrate. And the most joyous word of all: resurrection.

Even solemn Memorials resonate with the echoes of resurrection. Only that’s not quite right. Especially solemn Memorials resonate with the echoes of resurrection. Memorial Sunday is as much a little Easter as any. For whether we live or whether we die, we belong to Christ who is Lord, both of the dead and of the living.

The painting on display today is called the New Jerusalem. It was painted by the late Sister George Helen, a nun who lived and died on Ogden Avenue at the Congregation of St. Joseph. The scene it depicts is the very one described by John of Patmos in the book of Revelation.

We don’t spend a lot of time with the book of Revelation in these parts, and we’re not the first Christians to avoid it. The early church debated whether it should really be included in the Bible, and when I was a spitfire seminarian I vehemently argued that it was too violent to preach. It is wild and wooly and susceptible to bad interpretation. People constantly try to take it literally, as if it is a book of predictions just waiting to be parsed. Reading Revelation literally totally misses the point.

It would be like trying to find the square root of a sonnet, or applying the principles of calculus to a sonata. John of Patmos isn’t a clairvoyant forecasting the future; he’s a composer writing a song of heartbreaking lamentation and defiant hope. To a church in crisis, a people who are crushed under the heel of a powerful persecutor, he says: death does not have the final word. He says Christ is Lord of the dead and of the living.

He says, it’s not over yet, and when it is, our suffering will not only be vindicated; our every sorrow will be undone.

Even our deepest griefs, our most endless longings.

As John of Patmos and Sister Helen George imagine where this is all going, they envision a great multitude of people who are no longer susceptible to hunger or thirst. They are no longer in need of handkerchiefs to wipe sweat from their brows or tears from their cheeks. Everything that was broken is restored; everything that was lost is found. The whole of Creation joins in singing praises to the Creator.

I recently read about a priest named Thomas who asked his congregation to use their imaginations when they gathered around the table for the Lord’s Supper. My friend writes that he “often asked us to imagine the communion table stretching on for miles, to remind us that when we take Communion, we mysteriously feast with all those who are in Christ. In the Eucharist we commune with Dorothy Day and Saint Augustine, the apostle Paul and Billy Graham, Flannery O’Connor and my own grandmother. One day we will all feast together, in the flesh, with Christ himself” (Tish Harrison Warren, Liturgy of the Ordinary).

That bears repeating, as we begin to prepare our hearts and minds to approach that table ourselves: one day we will all feast together, in the flesh, with Christ himself.

I love the image of a communion table that stretches on for miles. I think we can easily forget that when we partake in the body and blood of Christ, we are not merely in Communion with our sisters and brothers seated alongside us in this sanctuary. We are not merely in Communion with our sisters and brothers worshipping in sanctuaries all over the globe, wherever two or three are gathered in the name of Christ. We are in Communion with the Communion of the Saints, which is to say we are one with Christians of all times, and all places.

That is one really long table.

The Lord’s Supper is a meal of remembrance, a time to recall the night that Jesus broke bread with his friends before his death.

But the Lord’s Supper is also a foretaste of the day when Jesus will break bread with his friends after death itself is vanquished - for all, and for ever.

So yes: for now there is grief. For now there are tears, and the tolling of too many bells. For now our Memorial Sunday is a solemn affair. But do not lose heart; do not grieve as those without hope.

Listen for the joy thrumming beneath the sound of sorrow; look for the love that will not let us go. Eat the bread of heaven, and drink the cup of forgiveness, and trust that while the triumph song is yet distant, the saints are already singing. The table is already set. The redemption work is already done; Creation is already restored.

Already, but not yet.


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