Today we celebrate the feast of All Saints day, perhaps the most bittersweet day of the church calendar. Today we honor and pray for those we love who have died in the last year and we contemplate the long line of saints who have gone before us, those who will go after us, and of course, we contemplate our own mortality.
In the very early years of Christianity, the Church would honor the death of every martyr for the faith. Unfortunately, because Christians were persecuted so thoroughly, soon it became impractical to honor each person martyred and a yearly celebration of the martyrs’ deaths was incorporated into the Church calendar. Over time, the day of celebration morphed into a commemoration of all the saints. For a long time, saints were defined as people who were heroically virtuous, but Protestants now celebrate All Saints day as a way to remember all persons who have gone before us in the faith. The change came as the theology of justification changed-Protestants believe that we do not work to earn our salvation, but that Christ justifies all believers.
This year, for us at Emmanuel, All Saints Day is particularly poignant, since one of our own saints, Bill Colmery, died unexpectedly of heart failure on Monday morning. We read his name on the list of the departed, and it seems shockingly wrong for us to see his name there. Bill was a devoted husband and father, a faithful member of this parish, and a consistent fixture at the Bread Fund, our food bank program. He was far too young to die, and yet here we are, a mere six days later, celebrating his life along with the lives of the great prophets, apostles and martyrs of the church.
All Saints day is a reminder that death is not very far from us, that we will all experience death. This is a sobering thought, but ultimately All Saints day is reminds us that death is not the end of the story.
None of us knows exactly what happens when we die, but one fundamental part of Christian belief is that Jesus’ death and resurrection radically changed humanity’s relationship with death. Rather than just dying, Jesus’ death and resurrection invites us into an eternal relationship with God. This relationship is not bound by the constraints of time or death.
So, if we who are alive are in fellowship with God and those who have died before us are in relationship with God, then at some level, we are still in relationship with those who have died ahead of us.
We just celebrated Halloween this week, and many a ghost decked the porches of my more creative and industrious neighbors. We as a culture are fascinated with the dead. We love ghosts, haunted houses, psychics who speak with the dead, but for Christians, none of this is necessary. We have a connection with our dead loved ones that is far deeper and more real and more profound than any parlor trick.
In every Eucharistic prayer you will hear a reference to the communion of all the Saints. When we take communion-when we share in the body and blood of Christ-we become physically connected to the communion of all the saints-those kneeling next to us, those praying on another continent and those who are already experiencing the fullness of God in heaven.
We do not know exactly how this communion works. We do not know at which level those persons who have died are cognizant of those of us still alive. References to life after death in the Bible describe heaven alternately as a city, as a mansion with many rooms, and always refer to the saints praising God. We know there is no grief in heaven. We also know that heaven will have many features of the Kingdom of God that we read in our Gospel lesson today. The hungry will be filled, the grief stricken will be comforted, and the poor will finally find their place. We know our relationships won’t be entirely the same-Jesus straightened out the guy who wondered which husband a widow of several men would get to marry-there is not marriage in heaven. But some kind of relationship will exist, though I imagine it will be centered on God in a way we cannot even imagine.
Our prayer book includes prayers for the dead and Catholics have long prayed to the saints, so maybe there is more of a relationship between the two parts of the communion than we might think. As a child, I used to ask God to say hi to my grandfather when I said my prayers at night. For a long time I was embarrassed by this, but upon reflection, I might have been on to something!
I think we have the Biblical and theological freedom to continue our relationships with our loved ones through prayer. Sometimes as we grieve, we realize there are things we have not said to the deceased that might help if said prayerfully. Alternately, we may experience a specific joy we’d like to share with a loved one. While we may feel silly, and there is certainly no proof that our communications reach our loved ones’ ears, I don’t think there is anything harmful or unchristian about speaking to our friends and family who have gone before us.
Let me be clear-we make a baptismal vow not to mess around with the spiritual world-so I do not advocate séances, psychics, ouija boards and the like. The church is not in the business of raising the dead. Well, Jesus was, and the occasional apostle, but it’s generally wise for the rest of us not to mess around with all of that.
But when we prayerfully communicate with members of the Communion of Saints, we are not trying to raise them from the dead. We are acknowledging that they have gone before us to a place we are soon to follow and that the bonds between us have not been entirely broken by death.
Acknowledging that we are part of a larger communion of saints than the communion that is currently alive is not a morbid Halloween exercise, but a celebration of the eternal life Christ has given us through his death and resurrection. Today, as we celebrate the Eucharist together, just imagine who might be kneeling with you, joining with you as you become one in communion with Christ.