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Sermon for All Souls
By W. J. Hankey

King's College Chapel, Halifax

The earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God.  For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willing, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope (Romans 8.20,21)

Death exposes the vanity in human life, the futility of our projects.  His honour affronted, Achilles reflects on the reward of his striving, confronting death he can find no will to go on:

Fate is the same for the man who holds back,

the same if he fights hard.  We are all held in

a single honour, the brave with the weaklings.

A man dies still if he has done nothing, as one

who has done much (Iliad 9.318-20)

Considering this, Achilles sought to live carelessly, at ease with his friends.


The same considerations are placed before us by the church in this season.  The book of the Preacher, Ecclesiastes, declares:

Vanity of vanities, vanity of vanities, all is vanity (1.2)

Again we have a king who has the means to explore every experience:

I gave my heart to seek and search out

by wisdom concerning all things that

are done under heaven: this sore travail

hath God given to the sons of man to be

exercised therewith.  I have seen all

the works that are done under the sun,

and, behold, all is vanity and a vexation

of spirit ... For in much wisdom there is

much grief: and he that increaseth

knowledge increaseth sorrow ... The

wise man's eyes are in his head; but the

fool walketh in darkness : and I myself

perceived also that one event happenth

to them all ... For there is no remembrance

of the wise more than of the fool forever:

seeing that which now is in the days to

come shall all be forgotten.  And how

dieth the wise man?  as the fool.  There-

fore I hated life; because the work that is

wrought under the sun is grievous unto me:

for all is vanity and vexation of the spirit.

(Ecclesiastes 1.13,14,18; 2.14,15,16,17)

The preacher considers the cycle of nature, the succession of days, the ceaseless movement of wind and water.  It all comes to nothing, there is an endless repetition, there is nothing new under the sun.  So he comes to that pessimistic vision, which, in our illiteracy, we have turned into optimism:

To everything there is a season, and a

time to every purpose under the heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;

a time to plant, and a time to pluck up

that which is planted; A time to kill,

and a time to heal; a time to break down,

and a time to build up  (Ecclesiastes 3.1-3)

The cosmos is an endless process in which death and destruction have equal place with life and birth.  Human effort is all a striving after wind, vanity, lost labour.


And so the Preacher comes to the most terrible vision of sterility, a vision represented in what is terribly beautiful poetry:

The day is coming

when the keepers of the house shall

tremble, and the strong men shall bow

themselves, and the grinders cease

because they are few, and those that

look out of the windows be darkened,

And the doors shall be shut in the

streets, when the sound of the

grinding is low, and he shall rise up

at the voice of the bird, and all the

daughters of musick shall be brought

low, Also when they shall be afraid of

that which is high and fears shall be

a burden, and desire shall fail: because

man goeth to his long home, and the

mourners go about the streets: Or ever

the silver cord be loosed, or the golden

bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken

at the fountain ... Then shall the dust return

to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall

return unto God who gave it.  Vanity of

vanities  ... all is vanity  (Ecclesiastes 12.3.7)

T.S. Eliot tells us that this is our day.  In language more conceptual and abstract, language more our own, he gives voice to our fear of that which is high, the failure of desire, the separation of flesh and spirit.  For us the silver cord which links knowledge and will is loosed, the golden bowl of personality is broken and the pitcher by which we draw from the water of life is shattered:

Between the idea

And the reality

Between the motion

And the act

Falls the Shadow ...

Between the conception

And the creation

Between the emotion

And the response

Falls the Shadow ...

Between the desire

And the spasm

Between the potency

And the existence

Between the essence

And the descent

Falls the Shadow

(The Hollow Men)

What word does God speak to this division?  The Word made flesh.  There idea and reality, conception and creation, existence and essence are one at the point of their infinite separation: the separation not only between creature and creator but also between sin and holiness, death and immortality.  But the Word made flesh is slain, given unto the hands of wicked men.  He was crucified and descended into hell.  Where says St. Peter, he preached unto the departed spirits.  (1 Peter 3.19)


We shall not comfort ourselves strongly enough with hopes for this present world, indeed it is just that transformation of religious hope into expectations for history which has given the old Preacher of Ecclesiastes and the contemporary poet the same message.  We have come in our time to the loosening of the will, to the breaking of hope and to the despair of truth not by looking directly at death, but by disillusionment with our own historical projects.  We have come to our present pass not by contemplating what Homer called immortal evil, but by finding the evil in our own good works, our own good intentions our hopes for history.


So it happens that we shall only be strengthened by that which our dead Lord preached to the dead.

Flesh and blood cannot inherit the

Kingdom of God ... the trumpet shall

sound and the dead shall be raised

incorruptible and we shall be changed.

For this corruptible must put on

incorruption, and this mortal must put

on immortality  (1 Corinthians 15.50-54)

Only life which has fully encountered, been given over to and so encompassed vanity, the vexation of the spirit, despair and death can be "steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord"  (1 Corinthians 15.58)


Only when we hold close to ourselves the omnipotent power which binds death and life together, as we cannot bind them, we who die perforce, only when we know the holy immortal power which is  working in all things by the death of the Son of God in order to bring the whole creation to immortal and incorruptible glory and power, only then shall we find the strength to begin again.  Then we shall reckon that the:

sufferings of this present time are

not worthy to be compared with the

glory that shall be revealed.

For the vanity is not just the failing of human will and power but it has become the will of God who works in all things to the end that:

the creature itself shall be delivered

from the bondage of corruption into

the glorious liberty of the children of

God.  (Romans 8.21)