All Souls’ Sunday 2013

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on November 10, 2013 (All Souls’ Sunday)

No one knows what Jesus actually looked like. That’s kind of odd isn’t it? This man who caused quite a stir in ancient Palestine and was either adored or reviled and no one thought to do a quick sketch? Nowhere in the Bible is there even a physical description of Jesus. He’s been worshipped for thousands of years by people who have no idea if he had a long thin nose or a square jaw or broad shoulders.

That’s not to say there haven’t been hundreds of thousands of paintings and statues and icons done of his likeness. But we don’t know what he actually looked like. One thing is for certain — he wasn’t the blond-haired, blue-eyed, handsome teen idol he’s often depicted as in bad art. He likely had a dark, olive-skinned complexion made even darker by the hot sun as he travelled throughout the countryside. I can’t imagine his beard was the neatly-trimmed variety we often see in commemorative plates put out by the Franklin Mint. Not only were there no electric hand-held trimmers, Jesus likely would have followed the Jewish law requiring males to “not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.” And anyway Jesus doesn’t strike me as the vain metro-sexual type, overly concerned with grooming and hair products and image. His lifestyle didn’t allow for it, nor did his outlook and philosophy on life.

I’ve been thinking about Jesus’ appearance in the context of our All Souls’ commemoration because of a line I remembered from the Anglican theologian C.S. Lewis’ book A Grief Observed. This was written in the aftermath of his wife’s tragic death as a way of surviving the intense, overwhelming grief that gripped his soul. Out of this raw period in his life, we’re given the gift of a brilliant man wrestling with the fundamental issues of life, death, and faith in the midst of loss. To me, it’s still the best book ever written on the subject of grief and I’ve found it personally helpful over the years.

51kt4-naFSLOne of the things Lewis writes about is the difficulty he has, while in the throes of grief, of picturing his late wife in his mind’s eye. “I have no photograph of her that’s any good” he writes. “I cannot even see her face distinctly in my imagination.” This isn’t uncommon. Alive, we see loved ones from every conceivable angle and in all sorts of situations. But these aren’t static images; they’re the dynamic, moving pictures of relationship. From personal experience, I would, of course, recognize my late father if he walked through my front door. Visualizing his face when I close my eyes is agonizingly difficult, however. Except on those rare but sweet occasions he materials in my dreams and seems vividly alive.

To live is to grieve. I’m not sure if anyone famous said this but the phrase kept popping into my head this week. To live is to love and to live is to lose and to lose is to grieve thus to live is to grieve. You can’t experience the fullness of life without losing loved ones. That’s not a great news flash but it’s important to acknowledge that grief is an integral part of the human condition, one we can’t avoid.

At the beginning of this liturgy we remembered all of the people that we have loved and lost over the years. And if our collective thoughts could have somehow been projected onto a screen we would have experienced a kaleidoscope of images and faces and interactions and emotions ranging from peace to anger to joy to bitterness to deep pain to acceptance to love. Grief is the rawest of human emotions — it affects us emotionally, spiritually, and physically. It can grab us when we least expect it, triggered by an image or a smell or a particular object.

But here’s where faith comes in — not to minimize our emotions but to give them context and a place to heal. There’s a reason our Prayer Book calls the burial rite an “Easter liturgy.” There’s a small note at the end of the rite that states, “The liturgy for the dead is an Easter liturgy.” Which at first glance is an odd rubric. Now most funerals don’t feel like Easter Day. There aren’t any big hats or marshmallow Peeps; there’s not an Easter egg hunt on the front lawn after the service. And indeed, when we bury a spouse or a sibling or a parent or a friend, resurrection is not foremost on our minds. Amidst the grief of losing a loved one, unparalleled joy feels distant and our minds are on a tomb that hardly feels empty. But in the Christian faith, death cannot be separated from resurrection. Death opens the gate of eternal life. So rather than a liturgy of despair, the burial rite is an affirmation of our hope in Jesus Christ. It is the fulfillment of Christ’s promise to “be with us always, even to the end of the age.” And we commend the deceased to Almighty God in “sure and certain hope of the resurrection.”

So the Christian faith teaches us that death is not the end. In our gospel reading this morning Jesus states quite clearly that “anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.” Death doesn’t get the last word. Which is precisely why, as we say at the end of the burial service: “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” Our grief is tinged with joy — not in the midst of the open wound, perhaps, but in time we come to see that death is not the final word; that Jesus’ resurrection has taken away the bitter sting of death; and that our loved ones have joined the heavenly communion of saints that stretches through all time and space.

I can only imagine the swirl of emotions surrounding the disciples after Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection. From agony to euphoria in three days and then gathering together and trying to piece together and remember all the things he said and did, trying and sometimes failing to remember exactly what he looked like. But their profound grief is something we can all relate to; it’s something that connects us to the disciples in a very real way.

For me, not knowing what Jesus looked like actually enhances my faith rather than diminishing it. Because when we stare into the eyes of Christ we see our true selves reflected back to us. We see someone who is loved and forgiven and saved. So I wouldn’t spend too much energy on weather Jesus had a full beard or a goatee; whether he was 5’8” or 5’11”; or whether his hair was curly or straight. The important thing is that Jesus came into the world as God in human form and that faith in him transforms us from people of despair into people of hope.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2013

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