Year B, All Saints
The Wikipedia article on All Saints day states, “Christians who celebrate All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day do so in the fundamental belief that there is a prayerful spiritual bond between those in heaven and the living.” Growing up in a Protestant tradition that did not celebrate All Saints day this was a foreign concept to me until I was in my early thirties. Then I found myself in a different Protestant church that celebrated All Saints day with banners full of small jingle bells. The banners hung in the narthex of the church for the two or three weeks preceding All Saints. The congregation was invited to pin the jingle bells on the banner in memory of a beloved “saint” in their life. I thought it was a nice idea so the first year I pinned a bell on for my youngest sister. When I was twenty-four she died in a car accident. She was a vibrant, active, thoughtful and faith-loving sixteen year old.
I also hung a bell for my ninety-something grandmother even though she was still living – a fact that she begrudgingly accepted as God’s will. Having already lost my grandpa, two of her eight children, a teenage grandchild and a great-grandchild to death I know God had heard from her about this seeming injustice. In hanging those two bells I unconsciously built that “prayerful spiritual bond”, a bridge if you will, between “those in heaven and the living” with myself in the middle.
On All Saints Sunday that year the bell banners were the focal point of the opening processional in worship. They rang in jubilant chorus over the congregational singing of “For All the Saints.” As I listened I suddenly understood that bridge of prayer in an intuitive and instinctual way, in my body and heart, beyond my intellect. Hearing the bells of all the community’s saints ring out in concert with our song the connection between those in heaven, the cloud of witnesses and the living was visceral. I understood that my sister, my aged grandmother, my three year old son who had helped me pin on the bells, and I were all part of God’s community of beloveds, of saints, and we would always be deeply connected. To this day All Saints has always been one of my most loved liturgical celebrations.
Where are the bridges between “heaven and the living” in our lectionary texts for this feast day? What do these texts tell us of saints…those who have been made righteous through faithfulness in death and those still striving to be righteous in daily living? How can the stories of “official” saints of the church help us understand the saints that we live among or have known in our families and faith communities? Is this celebration of the prayerful spiritual bond between heaven and the living deep and more profound than the emotional memories of those who have died, as meaningful as those might be? These are the questions I ask myself as I prepare to preach on All Saints Day this year.
The Wisdom of Solomon brings the image of the “souls of the righteous in “the hands of God.” “No torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction … And their going from us to be their destruction; … but they are at peace”(Wisdom 3:1-3). This is a familiar sentiment to us in the 21st century. The dead are at peace in God. Yet the remainder of the passage is surprising. It implies that God is still working with these souls “like gold in a furnace” and they can have an impact on the world. The souls in question may not be those who are deceased but instead the “saints” of the community who were undergoing persecution for their faith. How are we in a prayerful spiritual bond with such living saints in our time?
Isaiah 25 presents us with the rich imagery of a feast with well-aged wines for all the peoples of the world. There is a promise of hope for abundance and peace. God will lift the shroud of sorrow, literally the death, that has been on the people. According to Walter Brueggeman in his commentary on Isaiah 1 – 39, this is not the natural death that comes in the cycle of life. The death that is lifted from the people is the death of oppression on the poor and needy. God is bringing justice and an equalization of resources for all. “Death here is rather an active force of negativity that moves to counter and cancel and prevent well-being.”[i] We know the power of this death in our times as well. God swallows this death, destroys it bringing hope to the people. The poet/prophet of Isaiah is celebrating the present and the future hope of God’s deliverance of the saints of God. The mountaintop of the feast is the place of God’s deliverance in contrast to the ruined city told of in Isaiah 25:2. Psalm 24 continues the celebration of God’s sure liberation of the people as the psalmist sings “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in God’s holy place? …Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, …They will receive blessing from the LORD, and vindication from the God of their salvation” (Psalm 24:4-5).
We know that Revelation and the Gospel of John were written for the Jewish Christian community persecuted by other Jews. Seen in this light the images of Lazarus’ resurrection and Mary’s faith, the new heaven and earth become even more powerful. Once again we hear that God will wipe away all tears of those who mourn. “Death will be no more.” Is this the same stultifying death the poet of Isaiah writes of God swallowing and destroying?
Preparing to be the preacher for All Saints I want to bring a word pastoral comfort to those actively mourning. And a word of hope and call to action to those who are looking for new meaning in the midst of the death-dealing forces of our culture. “See, I am making all things new,” says the one on the throne in Revelation. This statement contains comfort to those learning to live without a loved one, to those seeking a new job and means of livelihood, to those seeking new relationships after abuse, to those seeking new meaning in the midst of despair and depression. All of us in the faith community are the saints of God. Those saints we have known who are deceased inspire us as we remember them for they too faced the death-dealing forces of culture in their lives. Those official saints of the church endured persecution as they boldly lived for God in their times. One does not become a saint by being mild-mannered and timid. Through the lives of all saints, living and in heaven, there runs a strong thread of hope in God’s assurance of radical and complete transformation in the love and justice of God.
“It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation” (Isaiah 25:9).
As you prepare to preach and teach on All Saints Day this year here is a list of my favorite sites for stories of the historic saints of the church. And don’t forget to include the contemporary saints of your religious tradition whether or not they have been beatified as well as the unsung saints of your community.
- Stories of St. Francis of Assisi in “The Little Flowers of St. Francis” http://www.ewtn.com/library/MARY/flowers1.htm
- There are many saints stories from around the world at this wonderful website from Dr. Robert Bela Wilhelm, my storytelling mentor. http://www.storyfestjourneys.com
Blessings on your All Saints celebrations,
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2015 and beyond. Text and photos may be reprinted with permission only.
[i] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998, 199.)