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Past, present, still to come

27 October 2023

Charles Moseley offers a reflection for All Saints’ tide


The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs, c.1423-24, Fra Angelico (1395-1455)

The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs, c.1423-24, Fra Angelico (1395-1455)

ALL HALLOWS’ EVE, then the ancient feast of All Saints, then All Souls’ Day; then, soon after, Remembrance Day, Volkstrauertag, Jour d’Armistice. . . As the nights draw in and the blinds come down against the darkening of the year, we are constantly reminded of the dead. We mourn especially for those in the flower of youth sacrificed on the altar of war, to the Moloch of a terrible nationalism, and of human pride and folly: “When David heard that Absalom was slain, he went up into his chamber over the gate and wept. ‘My son, my son, O Absalom my son, would God I had died for thee!’”

In 1916, German papers reported that, as Kaiser Wilhelm and his staff came to a hillock covered with scores of young bodies, he halted, and cried, “Ich habe das nicht gewollt” — “I did not wish that.” Who can now know whether that was true? But give remorse the benefit of the doubt: sometimes the pain, the waste, of it all is overwhelming. The obscenity of total war, not just between armies but, deliberately, on civilians, with their crying babies and palsied elders, has the evil momentum of a juggernaut, which nobody, nothing, except bankrupt exhaustion, can stop.


FOR the past century, on the anniversary of the guns falling silent over the devastated world in 1918, we have ceremonially remembered those who fell. Many Remembrance services recite “Let us now praise famous men and our fathers that begat us”, and also “Those who have no memorial, as if they had never been”, who died with their fruit unripe.

It is right we do mourn: they were living, breathing flesh, a network of relationships and dependencies reaching far into the past and resonating far into our future. But, in this act of remembrance, repentance, reconciliation, we are doing something much deeper than simply honouring the victims of war. For, after golden October declines into sombre November, comes the time when, for centuries, the Church has given thanks for All Saints, and interceded for All Souls.

Long before Christianity came, this season was sacred to the ancient people in the West. They called it Samhain: as the year paused between bountiful Harvest and lean winter, a time of truce, when new fire — a November bonfire — was kindled and its warming flame shared among the folk; when debts were paid, feasts held in fellowship, enemies embraced. This was — is — also a time when the veil between this world and the other is most easily pierced; when the spirits of those we have lost might meet with those who loved them; when our minds, by ritual and custom, are made most receptive to things unseen, and wavelengths unheard.

In these days, in these shared ceremonies, we can — if we are ready for it, and if we can open ourselves to accept that we can know what we do not understand — be aware of the tyranny of our usual linear model of time’s yielding a different way of seeing: of past, present, and future time gathered into one.


THIS season reminds us that our ancestors are still in us; that (as epigenetic research demonstrates) what they did and were affects our DNA, just as we will have an impact on our descendants. William Faulkner, in one of his novels of inherited pain, observed that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” We live, and our children’s children will live, with the endlessly reverberating consequences of that long war of 1914-45, and of all conflicts before and since.

Just as things done can never be undone, and thoughts thought can never be unthought, so you can’t relight the lamps that went out all over Europe in August 1914; you can’t go back to a time before what led to Auschwitz; you can’t unspray the forests of Vietnam with Agent Orange; you can’t put the djinn of atomic fission back into its lamp. We belong to a species that has killed 100 million people in wars since 1914 alone, and that has selfishly fouled its own nest, perhaps to the point of no return.

We inherit the common pain and common guilt of our species. We’re all participating in — benefiting from — the evil of unjust systems, past and present; and we must carry the pain and acknowledge our wretchedness. But it is also right that, in doing so, we ask for forgiveness, and pray that those we mourn may intercede for us. For we need that intercession; and why should we think the dead any less active than ourselves?

We affirm in the eucharist that “we are the body of Christ”, interdependent, one with another, in something far larger than our little selves. Every time we recite the Creed, we say we believe in “the communion of saints”. The Body of Christ begins in this world — as St Paul’s metaphor of an actual body, to be sure — but it extends with its risen Lord, with whom, through the flesh he took of his blessed mother, we share DNA, into the new heaven, which implies a new earth, in which we live no longer just as ourselves, but in a community joyously held together by the Holy Spirit.


AND why not? The whole pattern of the observable universe seems to be a fullness of self-giving, of sacrifice; a pattern of constant death and rebirth to which all stars, and plants, and animals — all matter — are subject, driven by a creativity so great that in the beginning it produced light, gravity, time, space, galaxies, stars, oceans, mountains, valleys, deserts, forests, and us, our beloved dogs, and all other creatures, in infinite variety.

And I try to grasp that this is the beautiful, mysterious goodness, wholeness, aliveness that surrounds us, imperfect as we are, upholding us even in our blindness — as Paul, speaking to the court of Areopagus, said, “in which we live and move and have our being”.

I try to grasp — and sometimes know, in moments as fleeting as the dazzle of sunlight on rippled water — that it is into this aliveness that all of us, all creation, will be taken up, in a homecoming, a reunion; a celebration, a marriage where each completed, unique, self finds its journey’s end, the butt and very sea-mark of its utmost sail, the fruition of all its toil. And in which it will, at last, know that real name by which it — you, I — will be called, known, and loved, by our master.


SO WE also inherit the complete opposite to guilt: we carry the joy that we are saints; that we share in the glory and the heroism, and the generosity and the grandeur that humans have achieved, and will again. We share the guilt of Belsen, but also the glory of Bach, and the blessedness of Bonhoeffer. Grace abounds, even to the chief of sinners.

Glory as well as grief, holiness as well as horror: both opposites are true, and, in Christ, who humbled himself to bear our griefs and carry our sorrows to the jeers and agony of Calvary, who loved us even as sinners, those opposites don’t cancel one another out to a zero: they include one another. Only out of the agony of childbirth can there be a nativity of new life; only out of refining fire does the glory of gold shine. Only out of sinners are saints made.

David mourned his prodigal, rebellious son: “Would God I had died for thee!” One father did so love his prodigal and rebellious sons and daughters that, in the person of his son, he suffered for us the worst that humans can do to each other, and did, indeed, die for us — and rise again, so that we might be welcomed into the sacrificed Lamb’s high feast, when he shall wipe away all tears; and death, the last enemy, will be swallowed up in final victory.


Dr Charles Moseley is a Life Fellow of Hughes Hall, Cambridge. charlesmoseley.com

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