A sermon for the Feast of All the Saints
“I believe in the communion of saints…”
These seven words, part of the Apostles Creed, are said every time we baptize or confirm someone in the Episcopal Church. It comes at the end of that creed, in that last grouping of “I believe” phrases – I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. But beyond the occasional times we say them together, do these words resonate in our regular experience of worship? “I believe in the communion of saints.”
Today we commemorate the Feast of All Saints. It is one of the principal feasts of the church. Indeed it trumps everything else around it. It is one of those Feasts around which the entire church year is structured. But sadly in the culture outside the walls of this church I fear the Feast of All Saints may have suffered the same fate as Ash Wednesday. For a vast majority of Americans, it is the “eve” of All Saints that people celebrate. What Mardi Gras is to Ash Wednesday, so Halloween has become to All Saints. If you were to ask your average citizen on the street when All Saints Day occurs, the best you are likely to hear, if they have an answer at all, “Oh! That’s the day after Halloween!” All Saints Day has become an after-thought and a bit anti-climactic.
Of late, the day after All Saints, November 2nd, what we term “All Souls Day” has enjoyed a bit of a revival in interest and celebration, thanks entirely to how this day is commemorated in Mexico, what they call “Dia de los Muertos” or “The Day of the Dead.” Yet, I fear that those who paint their faces with elaborate skull-themed patterns still miss the point of all this commemoration and celebration.
In ancient, pre-Christian times, these days were observed by northern Europeans as the time of the year. The leaves have fallen. The nights grow longer. Mornings are frosty. Winter is upon us. Death is a very present reality in human life. The belief arose that during these days the veil between this world and the realm of the dead grew quite thin. During these days, they believed that the spirits of those who died in the past year were able to pass from this existence to the hereafter. Frightened mortals would put gifts of food out in front of their houses to bribe these migrating spirits not to harm their home, their family, their crops and cattle, as they passed by. No wonder we still see so many little ghosts and goblins roaming about looking for treats and threatening tricks.
After the rise of Christianity, it was first in Ireland that the Catholic Church adopted and adapted these rituals into the calendar of the church year, and the feast of All the Saints was born.
Even today, All Saints is a distinctive feast in the Christian year and it says something critically important about our faith as Christians. It is because I see All Saints is in danger of becoming lost in the post-Halloween sugar induced comas of little children and the frenzy of merchandisers to take down the Halloween displays and put up the Christmas decorations, that we must today, come to a full stop and say again these words, “we believe in the communion of saints.”
Ask anyone to name a saint and you’ll get a predictable list: St. Patrick, St. Nicholas, St. Joseph, St. Helen, San Diego, San Francisco, maybe even St. Brendan! But who are the saints, really? The word saint comes from the same Latin root as the words sanctify and sanctuary. The root idea is holiness. For many centuries, being a saint meant being a member of an exclusive club – saints were holy people whose lives were full of miraculous events and followers commemorated them with feast days and acts of devotion. And yet, it is a mark of our Episcopal identity, in our more reformed moments, that we affirm that not only are these heroes of the faith “saints,” but anyone who has ever been forgiven by God is a saint as well. We who have been forgiven have been “made holy” or sanctified by God. We are all saints.
You may notice moments during the Eucharist, as the celebrant blesses the bread and the wine, sanctifying them, setting them apart, making them holy, there is usually a phrase included that reminds us of this fact – that we are being made holy as well – “Sanctify us also,” or “that we may be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction,” or “unite us to your son in his sacrifice that we may be acceptable through him, being sanctified by the Holy Spirit,” or “May your holy spirit descend up on us and upon these gifts.” Just as the priest makes the sign of the cross over the bread and the wine, so you will often see some members of the congregation make the sign of the cross over themselves at that moment to reflect that truth – by God’s grace we are made holy as well. We are present at the altar, being made holy, just as the bread and the wine are being made holy.
And so we believe every Christian is a saint. Every Christian, and this is where it gets a little bit tricky, every Christian, both the living and the dead.
The feast of All Saints is a commemoration not only of the famous heroes of the church. It is not just a reminder that we here gathered are saints, from the oldest to the youngest. But it is as well a remembrance of all those who have departed this life, those whom we knew and loved, especially all those who have died since All Saints last year. In just a few moments, during the Eucharist, we will read the names of those who have died, in what is called the Necrology. Commemorating the dead in this way may seem like a strange tradition to us, but we actually do it every time we celebrate the Eucharist.
In the prayers of the people we pray for those who have died. In the Eucharist itself, we leave room to commemorate not just the famous saints, but those whom we see no longer. These are they we are speaking of when the celebrate says, “With Angels and Archangels and ALL the company of heaven.” My friends, you know someone in that company right this very moment.
For me, one of the most beautiful phrases in the Prayer Book is one we don’t hear very often, a fact for which perhaps we should be thankful, as it comes in the funeral liturgy. “For to your holy people, O God, life is changed, not ended.” We who remain in this existence, we who wear watches and have calendars and appointments, we cannot know what that change looks like. We can only imagine. And yet, we believe that death is but a transition, a migration, when those we love pass from this life to something ineffable, something wonderful.
I had an experience some ago back that made me wonder if I had a momentary glimpse of this Communion of Saints. Would you believe it involved football? Where I lived in downtown Blacksburg was less than a mile from the stadium where the Virginia Tech Hokies play. On nights when I didn’t have a ticket to the game, I could watch it on ESPN OR I could simply grab a frosty beverage and sit on my front porch. The lights of the stadium filled the sky. The cheers of the crowds were unmistakable. One night as I enjoyed a game at this distance, I suddenly had a feeling that I was missing out. If only I could be with my friends there, watching the game in person! It’s ok if you translate this analogy to Heinz Stadium and the Steelers, I don’t mind.
On All Saints we celebrate the fact that in Christ the distance between us is somehow removed. It is especially appropriate on this day that we are reminded that they are here, worshiping with us. Every person who was baptized in that ancient font helps comprise this company of heaven. Every person who worshiped in front of this altar, who read lessons from that lectern, who heard sermons preached from this pulpit, they are here, with us, gathered around God’s table.
This altar becomes a thin place when we celebrate God’s grace and God’s love. We believe in the communion of saints, saints gathered in celebration and thanksgiving. Here the distance between us and those whom we see no longer becomes very small indeed.
We celebrate and give thanks with all company of heaven, everyone from Saint Stephen the first martyr of the Church to Martin Luther King, Jr., a martyr in our own time. We celebrate with John and Charles Wesley, John Donne, Francis and Clare of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, and even King Kamehameha and Queen Emma of Hawaii. But there is also that list of names filled out of our own personal loss, names written on our hearts.
As we gather at God’s table this morning, we all bring names with us. May this be a time not just of remembrance but one of hope. May we embrace this truth that rises above superstition and folly: we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. And may these words be ever on our lips, “I believe in the communion of saints.”