For his fifth birthday, my grandson Otto was given a small keyboard. No doubt in time he will learn to play some tunes on it, but for the moment he simply presses a button, and the keyboard strikes up with a well-known tune. I'm not sure how much joy these endlessly repeated melodies will bring his parents (mind you, they gave it to him!), but I was interested to hear that his favourite number is a version of the main theme from the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony - the Ode to Joy, as it's known. And I found myself remembering a Prom performance of the Ninth which I saw and heard a couple of years ago at the Albert Hall - a wonderful experience. Beethoven's last Symphony, supposedly composed when he was completely deaf (though recent research has cast doubt on the extent of his impairment), expresses an astonishingly powerful, defiant joy - a great shout of "Yes!" in the face of life's hardships and sorrows. Less overtly religious than, say, Handel's "Messiah", the last movement stands alongside the Hallelujah Chorus as an affirmation, an assertion, of that life which cannot be quenched, even by death itself. The resurrection, in other words.
On November 1st we remember all the saints who didn't make the headlines, and who don't have their own special day of remembrance. And All Saints slides quite easily into All Souls on November 2nd, when we call to mind those countless souls, including many we have known and loved, who live in the glorious light of God's love, now and for ever. So how should we remember them? In some cases, inevitably, with a lingering sadness at the loss we have suffered and the apparent finality of our parting from them; but also - as we think of all the saints, and of all those souls who have shown us something of God's love and beauty - with gratitude. And with joy. These lives have expressed something of the joy of the Creator, and the joy of Jesus Christ risen from death. Unless we sugarcoat our memories, it's not perfection we see in them, but some sense, not always obvious but always there within, of a person who is loved and who is able to love. Someone who carries the unmistakeable imprint of the love of God. And this inspires joy, because, like Beethoven, we see that, truly, nothing can separate us from the love of God - this unstoppable, death-defying, timeless power in which we live and move and have our being, now and always.
I used to feel sorry for the dead. I thought they had lost something which I, living, still had. But little by little, as I've pondered the mystery of life after death, it has dawned on me that the risen life, the life of heaven, is anything but a pitiable state. If, as I believe, the beauties of this life, from crashing waves to silent communion, from wide-eyed childhood to lives of humble service, are all hints of the glory to come, then that glory in its fullness must bring a delight and joy beyond measure. No need to pity the dead - better, perhaps, to imagine them pitying us in our struggles. Rather, this is a time to rejoice in the wonder that awaits us, which they now know in full.