As the early church took shape and firmed up a belief system, it came to speak about the “Communion of Saints” to which all believers belong, including it in the Nicene Creed, the confession of faith we continue to proclaim today. When we speak of the Communion of Saints, we frequently go on to talk about “a great cloud of witnesses” who surround and accompany us on the journey of faith.
The Catechism (or Outline of the Faith) in the Book of Common Prayer describes it this way:
The communion of saints is the whole family of God,
the living and the dead, those whom we love and those
whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament,
prayer, and praise. (BCP p. 862)
So the first way the Church understands saints is simply as all believers – those who strive, in whatever degree we can, to follow Jesus. These are the saints we sing about in another hymn we’ve often sung on All Saints:
You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,
In church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea,
For the saints of God are just folks like me,
And I mean to be one too.
So those are the saints with a small “s”. Some of those saints become Saints (with a capital “S) because they lead lives of faith that we recognize as extraordinary. Some were martyrs, but others were scholars, monastics, musicians, clergy, evangelists, revolutionaries and more – they are individuals in whom we believe God was working, whose lives and choices point us to the Christ we glimpse in them.
The Roman Catholic Church tradition has a process for the canonization of saints (or, in other words, setting apart as holy). Anglicans – including we Episcopalians – don’t canonize people. In their book on Episcopal Beliefs and Practices, Scott Gunn and Melody Shobe observe that “The church does not make Saints; the church recognizes people whom God has made Saints.” (p. 249)
In the Prayer Book’s List of Holy Days (pp. 17-18) we find the list of recognized Saints who are in fact assigned Holy Days on which we commemorate their lives. There are actually not many - only seven individuals are named - and the list reflects the perceptions of the church from centuries past. The church today maintains a much broader list of persons who may be recognized as Saints in the church, and who have days designated for their commemoration.
It is pretty cool that this list of “Holy Women [and] Holy Men” is not fixed, but is ever expanding. On it we can find our own guys, James and Andrew, but we also find Perpetua and her companions, third century martyrs for the faith; Andrei Rublev, the 15th century Russian Orthodox monk who painted the wonderful and familiar icon of the Trinity; Mary Brant (Konwatsijayenni) an 18th century woman of mixed English and Mohawk parentage who worked to maintain peace between European settlers and the Iroquois Confederacy; and John Muir, 20th century naturalist and environmentalist, among many more interesting and sometimes surprising names.
The Episcopal Church acknowledges that we do not agree on what constitutes a Saint, and that different church communities practice different traditions in the ways they relate to the Saints. Some individuals offer prayers asking the saints to pray with or assist them, while others use the example of the saints’ lives to inspire them. (A Great Cloud of Witnesses is the church’s current publication containing brief biographies of all of those included on the list of those recognized for commemoration; it is available in book form or as a PDF, available online.)
Among the practices common to many Episcopal churches regarding saints are two that we are practicing today. In our prayers on All Saints Day we remember the names of members of this congregation who have died in the past year.
In addition, we invite members of the community to lift up for remembrance their own loved one who have passed away and whom they remember with love and gratitude. Today, as you can see, we have tried a new thing by inviting you to share pictures of those dear departed.
We were inspired to try on this visual approach to remembrance by the practice of our Mexican brothers and sisters who celebrate the Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos, also on November 1. On this holiday, families remember and pay respects to departed family members and friends by gathering around altars of remembrance, to eat and tell stories.
Many cultures of the world, in fact, recognize this time of year as a time for communication with the dead. The pre-christian Celts and Druids celebrated the festival of Samhain mid-way between the fall equinox and the winter solstice, or on October 31 and November 1. They believed that “the barriers between the physical world and the spirit world break down on these days,” allowing interaction with those who reside in that otherworld. (History.com: Samhain)
Those emerging from the dead over Samhain included both the ancestors for whom cakes might be laid out for them in homes and also fairies. The practice of dressing in animal or monster costumes during the festival had the purpose of preventing the fairies from kidnapping the ancestors. (Ibid)
As Christianity took hold in Europe and various pagan practices were adapted and transformed to fit compatibly with Christian faith, the traditions of Samhain became, between the 5th and 9th centuries, the Feast of All Saints, preceded on October 31, by All Hallows Eve.
So all of that is a fun history lesson, but what does any of it mean for us today, trying to see how to be faithful in a complicated and challenging world?
For one thing, the church’s All Saints traditions are a reassurance that we are not alone in our struggles. The faithful who have gone before – both the little s and capital S – were, just as we are, were imperfect folks doing their best. As the hymn says, “they toiled and fought and lived and died”. Their efforts and their perseverance are what makes them saints, and for some of them, God working in and through them made a profound difference in the world.
And they are with us as companions on the journey in the mystical body of Christ – the great cloud of witnesses, the family of God.
It also seems to me that the saint-and-ancestor feasts and festivals throughout time and across space all speak to the fundamental human concern about death – including both for ourselves, and for those we have loved who are no longer with us. The death that concerns us is not only the physical end of life, but also the subtler, psychological, emotional and spiritual forms of death that show up in all of our lives.
I suspect that this is why the story of the raising of Lazarus is chosen for us as the gospel for All Saints. There is much in this story to unpack and marvel at, but undoubtedly the most compelling truth that the story testifies to is that the power of God’s love conquers death.
Jesus’ friend Lazarus is absolutely, physically dead. He is stashed in a tomb, in the dark, behind a stone, and wrapped in the bands that hold back the stench of death. But Jesus loves Lazarus as he loves Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha. And Jesus knows the power of the Creator, that Love is stronger than death. Jesus calls Lazarus’ name, and he emerges from the place of death.
In his discussion of the Lazarus passage, Lutheran pastor and theologian Brian Peterson observes that “Jesus is the presence of God’s life become flesh for us.” “Jesus is the one in whom there is life (1:4),” he goes on to say, “the one who even now calls us out of all the dark and binding places of death….. the life of Jesus breaks into our present and transforms it… on both sides of the grave there is life for us because Jesus has been sent to call our names.” (2018 commentary on John 11:32-44 at Working Preacher.com)
Not only are we not alone because we are a part of the Communion of Saints, but even in the presence of the ugly deaths with which life surrounds us, we are called by name and welcomed into the larger life that is God’s love for us.
For this love, and for the life of Jesus, showing us the way and calling us to follow, thanks be to God.
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