The theology of All Souls’ Day is often explained in connection with Purgatory; for example, Michael Rubbelke wrote a great post on Purgatory and prayers for the dead last year during Daily Theology’s Halloween-themed Shark Week. Purgatory and prayers for the dead are an important part of All Souls’ Day’s history and liturgical importance, but I would like to turn my theological interpretation of the feast towards another one of its central aspects: hope. It may seem strange to think about hope in the midst of All Souls’ Day, with its emphasis on death and the afterlife, and the feelings of grief and loss that often accompany these topics. But, as the readings and prayers you may hear in Mass today illustrate, even in death and loss there is peace, love, and abundant hope.
First, I’d like to consider All Souls’ Day in continuity with its twin feast, All Saints’ Day. On All Saints’ Day we celebrate the countless saints, well-known and unknown to us, who serve as models of the numerous ways of being Christ to the world, who we turn to in prayer as friends on our spiritual journeys, and who we recall at the Eucharistic table, as those members of the Body of Christ already in God’s presence. On All Souls’ Day, then, we remember our loved ones who have passed away, pray for their eternal rest, and call to mind that we too will one day pass away. We hope to live, believe, and even die like the holy saints who have gone before us. Likewise, we memorialize our loved ones who have passed on but live on in our memories. Inherent to the theology of both days is a belief in the immortality of souls and the trust that, as Paul tells us, just as we have already died and risen with Christ in baptism, when we die we will rise again to eternal life with him. All Saints’ Day celebrates the holy saints’ union with Christ in heaven; All Souls’ Day celebrates our hope for the same ultimate fate. On All Souls’ Day we hope that our loved ones know how we love and miss them and we hope that they are in the presence of God, yes, but we also hope for ourselves. Today (and many days) we are faced with the knowledge of our ultimate mortality, and, while this may be unsettling or even terrifying, we can also be comforted by the stories of our shared Christian hope—that we will finally come to see our Creator and be perfectly united with Christ—and our own personal hope—that our beloved dead will be the ones who welcome us into the heavenly realm.
Often, however, this hope dwindles: in the depth of our grief for the loss of a loved one, in the heights of happiness here on earth, in the monotonous rhythms of our everyday lives, or in the utter mystery and unknowable nature of what comes after death, we easily lose sight of the hope which should sustain us. Perhaps this is because we often treat hope as back-up virtue: something to be ignored when things are going well and drawn from in a time of need. But hope cannot be contained in some sort of spiritual reservoir, set aside for grave illnesses and spiritual emergencies; it cannot be put on the back burner for special intentions. It must be planted and fostered throughout our lives, reminding us that God is the source of all grace in the here and now and that our ultimate goal is to return to the ultimate source of that grace: our Creator. Christian hope is kept alive through the stories (like the Gospels and the narrative of salvation history) and the rituals that remind us of our source, our goal, and the graces of love, family, and friendship. And so the ultimate ritual of hope is the Eucharist, the “source and summit of the Christian life,” as well as the source and summit of our Christian hope. The Eucharist fosters our hope for divine communion as a means of communion with Jesus Christ, and our hope for ecclesial union as it brings us into communion with the entire Body of Christ here on earth. But the Eucharist also unites us with the entire communio sanctorum: the holy dead who the priest names in the Eucharistic Prayer (“John the Baptist, Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas, Ignatius, Alexander, Marcellinus, Peter, Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia and all [the] Saints”) and our beloved faithful departed. Receiving the Eucharist, then, serves as a means of communion with Jesus Christ and with his Mystical Body, but the Eucharistic celebration also serves as a means of communion with his saints and with the faithful departed who we love and miss dearly. Eucharistic communion, then, is a foretaste of the reunion we will experience with our loved ones, just as it is a foretaste of heavenly communion with Christ and our Creator. Every celebration of the Eucharist, then, is a celebration of the fact that we are still bonded, through love, and memories, and Christ’s Body, with those who have gone before us into God’s presence. This is why, in addition to praying for those who we love and visiting their graves, it is important to also attend Mass and receive communion on All Souls’ Day; small rituals of memorial can unite us to our deceased loved ones, but the Eucharist is a sacramental means of union, though Christ, with those with whom we hope for heavenly re-union.
I am reminded of this when I listen to a song by one of my favorite bands, The Black Keys. In their song “Unknown Brother,” the lead singer, Dan Auerbach, sings of the loss of a brother he never knew and his longing to meet him one day. Reportedly referring to his wife’s brother who died as an adolescent, this song speaks to anyone who has likewise “lost” someone before they had the chance to know them and who laments that unknowing. And yet, as I listen to the song, I can’t help but note that this “unknown brother” is, in fact, very well known to the singer; he knows him well enough to sing him this song, promising him that they will meet one day. How is it that someone “unknown” can be known like this?
In the song, Dan explains that his “baby’s mother” is pained by the memories of her brother, yet she shares stories, memories, and photos of her beloved brother with her husband, for whom the unknown brother is now not wholly unknown, who will now never be forgotten. Through the remembrances of his sisters and mother, through the photos that they share and especially the stories that they tell, the pain and grief of his loss is muted by the joys of his childhood and the love that endures. These are bittersweet memories, but they are what keeps him alive in their hearts and what brings him to life for his would-be brother-in-law. These memorial rituals serve as a mode of communion between the grieving living and the beloved dead, and, through these rituals, even the singer, who has never met his wife’s brother, participates in this mourning, memorializing, and communion. Through these means of imperfect communion the unknown brother is, in fact, well known and well loved. And this will culminate, as the song assures us, in the hoped-for promise of heavenly reunion.
Of course, this is all “just” hoping. We can never prove our beliefs of what will happen after death, just as we can never prove our belief in what gives us life—the immortal, created human soul. There have been fascinating scientific studies which have tried to give us some data surrounding near-death and out-of-body experiences, but science cannot measure the immeasurable and cannot interpret this data in philosophically and theologically meaningful ways. In the end, all that we have to keep our hope alive are “just” the stories and the rituals: the stories of those who have nearly died and claim to have seen God and the stories of those who were dying and described their deceased loved ones welcoming them to heaven, the stories that we tell and rituals that we enact which keep our beloved dead alive in our hearts, and that ultimate Christian story and ritual which is the source of all our hope—that Jesus Christ died for us and rose again so that we might have eternal life and know the peace of his resurrection–celebrated again and again in the Eucharistic liturgy.
 Lumen Gentium, 11.