This week, when someone said to me, “I love All Saints Day!” I had the presence of mind to not simply say, “Yes, me too!” but to ask, “Why? Why do you love All Saints Day?” I expected her to say that it was a day to remember the people she loves who have joined that “great cloud of witnesses” or a day to think about all the amazing people who have given their lives in service to God.
“Because I love that song!” she said, excitedly. “Which song?” I asked. “For all the saints…”
“No, the ‘and I want to be one too’ one!”
Now that’s some good theology right there, even if it is generated from an overly-chirpy, Edwardian-era hymn for children. But that is often case—the stuff written for children has the best theology.
Not to mention the thrill every kid gets by singing ‘and one was slain by a fierce, wild beast!’
Today is All Saints Sunday, and the way I and many of my colleagues observe it is more of a combination of All Saints Day and All Souls Day, an opportunity to remember not only the “Capital S” saints like Peter and Paul, Constance and Hildegard, but those ‘lower-case s’ saints like Vieno and Jane and Vic and Bill+.
None of the people we will remember today in the prayers for All Saints were slain by a fierce wild beast—at least not in the sense of lions or tigers in the coliseum. But at least one lived with grace and courage as her body gave way to cancer; another kept her beautiful smile and sweet spirit as her memories slipped away. One or two were gone before anyone had a chance to say good-bye.
All of them are now beyond our reach. But as Christians, our fervent belief is that they are not beyond the reach of God.
All Saints Sunday is the day when we acknowledge the reality of death, but don’t allow it the last word.
I want to share something I read this week, which says it so concisely:
The Church calendar has for over a thousand years insisted that we don’t forget the people who have died, the saints who have gone before us.
It has insisted that we don’t gloss over death, or give death more power than it is due. It calls us to remember the lives of those who have died, and acknowledge that in some mysterious way they are with God, and we will be with them again. (Jonathan Storment, patheos blog)
Our reading from Revelation this morning paints a beautiful picture of what it will be like when we are ‘with them again.’ A vision of saints robed in white, gathered around the throne of God, worshiping in joy and reverence, no tears, no pain, no sadness. I can’t help but hear my New Testament professor’s giggle, though, as I picture them singing God’s praises while face-down on the ground in front of God’s throne.
I don’t know what heaven or the afterlife or eternal life or whatever you want to call it will be like. To be honest, I don’t really spend much time thinking about it. I trust that whatever life is beyond this one is just as much a gift from God as this one is, and it is entirely in God’s hands and will be infused with God’s love and grace in ways that we can only imagine. If I entrust that life to God, I can spend this one trying to open myself more and more to that same love and grace, and inviting others to join me in those attempts.
All Saints is not just a day to look backwards to all those saintly folks who have gone into eternal glory. It’s a day to look forward, knowing we will one day be the remembered, not the remember-ers. It’s a call not just to appreciate the lives of the saints, but to seek to live as faithfully ourselves—and to recognize that we are the patterns for the next generation of saints. If we want them to know that God is loving, forgiving, welcoming—we need to teach them that. We need to model that for them, by living as people who are loved, and forgiven.
To be a saint is not to be extra pious or especially holy. I wouldn’t even say it’s to be particularly well-behaved. (My beloved Bill White+, the first priest I ever knew, was my model for saintly naughtiness, and had a tendency to get the giggles in church—now you know where I learned it!)
To be a saint is to see the blessing in every moment, good or bad, to know that the light of Christ shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.
Today we celebrate that the light of Christ has been carried through the years, bringing light and hope to each generation. We have received that light from those who came before us; now it is our turn to carry it, and share it with those who come after us, so that when we are gone the light will still shine, so that “the world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus will…”
And I mean to be one, too.