Rev. Heather J. Blais
This past week we celebrated a trifecta of holy days.
It began on Thursday with All Hallow’s Eve, and while it is not a feast day in the Church, a service for All Hallow’s Eve does appear in our Book of Occasional Services. It draws from the Service of Light in the prayerbook, and there are special lessons appointed for the day, such as the valley of dry bones from Ezekiel, and the unusual story of the Witch of Endor from 1 Samuel (28:3-25).
In the story, Saul has recently cast out all the witches, mediums, and seers throughout the land. Yet after Samuel’s death, with the Philistine army approaching, Saul was afraid. He spoke out to God, but when he heard nothing, he inquired about a seer. When he learned about the Witch of Endor, he disguised himself and went to her, hoping to find solace and advice.
Yet even the witch was afraid to speak, for fear of punishment from Saul. In the story, God surprises us all, by speaking to both the witch and Saul through their fear. They left their encounter with a deeper sense of God’s vision and care.
Sam Portaro in his book Brightest and Best, writes, “To deny or denigrate such experiences as that of Saul and the Witch of Endor is to maintain that God communicates only in the ways we dictate and deem tasteful. Because Saul’s source is suspect in our eyes, we are perplexed by its intrusion into our religious sensibilities” (197-198).
All Hallow’s Eve is a time when we collectively confront our fear of death through laughter, trickery, and playing with the things that normally spook us. And when we cast all the candy and costumes aside, and look at our fears head on, God is there, ready to help us face that which feels so uncertain and scary.
The second day in the trifecta is the Feast of All Saints, which we celebrate today. Scholars believe the day originated in Ireland and spread all the way to Rome, where in the early 800s c.e. Pope Gregory the Fourth urged Emperor Louis the Pious that such a festival should be observed throughout the entire Roman Empire (Lesser Feasts and Fasts 362). There are also subtle hints from even earlier that there was an All Martyrs’ festival. One such hint is the Pantheon in Rome, which was originally a pagan temple dedicated to “all the gods”, yet in 610 c.e. was dedicated as the Church of St. Mary and All Martyrs (Lesser Feasts and Fasts 362).
All Saints Day is the centerpiece of these three days, as we continue to face death, but this time through the lens of particularly holy people, who have embodied goodness in remarkable ways through their actions and lives. This is where we remember the likes of Mary, the unwed teenage mother of Jesus; Andrew and James, fishermen who leave everything to follow Jesus; Mary Magdalene, who showed the world there has always been a place for women at God’s table; Patrick, who brought Christianity to Ireland; and so many more. These individuals, who were very much human, broken and beloved by God, often did not quite fit in with others. By the grace of God, they were able to take their brokenness and see a hurting part of the world and help transform it for the better.
The saints came to represent intercessors or protectors. Even long after they have lived, we still look to these folks for inspiration, as a window into what it means to embody goodness with our whole being. They give us hope.
The last day in the trifecta is possibly my favorite, Commemoration of All Faithful Departed, better known by its older name of All Souls Day. In 998 c.e., Odilo of Cluny, the abbot of Cluny monastery, decided that after the festival of All Saints, all the monasteries under his supervision should celebrate another festival, in honor of all their dead loved ones (Folks Like Me 60). It began as a time where folks might visit their family graves to clear the weeds, have a picnic, and bring fresh flowers (Folks Like Me 60). This festival eventually spread to the whole Church, and is where we get the Day of the Dead celebrations (Folks Like Me 60).
During the reformation this practice was eliminated in some places due to abuses connected with masses for the departed and because in the New Testament the word ‘saint’ is applied to all baptized Christians, not to a special class of believers or to those who have maintained higher moral standards (Lesser Feasts and Fasts 364). When the day was reintroduced, it was done so knocking out ‘all souls’ to become ‘all faithful’. Somehow the Church once again lost sight of God’s vision. God does not intend for us to only remember those who have been faithful; rather, we are called upon to remember all the broken, all the lost, and all who are different from us. It is a day to remember every single member of creation, everyone we have loved and lost, and those who have no one to remember them.
It is the day we proclaim our hope for eternal life with God and one another, as articulated in Isaiah, who proclaimed that everyone is born of God and everyone is gathered up in God at death (Brightest and Best 202).
“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever” (Isaiah 25:6-7)
All three days have roots in older pagan traditions which were adapted and repurposed for Christianity. There is no doubt this was a strategic move by those who sought to spread Christianity with empire. Yet underneath those motives, still remains something beautiful about these traditions. We all must face our own mortality, and these traditions help us to find courage and hope as we look towards God, by remembering those who have gone before us. Which is why today, I want to invite each of us moved to do so, to light a candle. To recognize we all have fears about what is to come, to give thanks to those saints who are a window to help us see and understand God and ourselves in new ways, and to remember those people who made us who we are.
So today, I light a candle in memory and thanksgiving for…
...my grandmother Sally, who showed me unconditional love.
...my aunt Debbie and grandfather Gene, whose own fragility and brokenness taught me how important it is to forgive oneself.
…my friend, Father Bamforth, who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.
….for Chuck in Maine, who died last week and showed the world joy, love, and light by the way he entered every room.
...the saints who have gone before us at Saints James and Andrew who have touched our lives and will not be forgotten.
...my favorite writers, Lewis and Tolkien, who helped me envision and understand my faith in deeper ways through story.
...for the prophet Martin Luther King, Jr., who believed in a better world.
...for Jacob, who teaches us how to wrestle with God.
...for the prophets and early Church, who are constant reminders that God is still doing something new, even now.
For these, and so many more.
I invite you to come forward and light a candle for all those saints you carry with you. Amen.
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