For All the Saints

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

If there ever was a festival day that invited a change of readings, surely it’s All Saints! It’s not so much that the appointed texts are wrong, but more that the day is so complex, and is observed in so many different ways, that a judicious selection of biblical readings can help you draw out the particular meaning and significance that will animate your congregation’s celebration. In this letter, I want to review some elements of All Saints Day and suggest texts — including the appointed ones — that might well serve to accent and enliven your worship.

One of the primary meanings of All Saints is as simple as it is straightforward: we gather to give thanks to God for the Saints of every time and place to whom we are joined in eternal fellowship; for those who have been particularly important to us and who, having died, now live in the nearer presence of God; and for God’s mighty raising of Jesus Christ from the dead so that we might have hope not only in our dying but also in all of our living. In this regard, the appointed second reading for All Saints, from Ephesians,
underscores the inheritance we have in Christ Jesus to live in faith now and to be joined to Christ and all the saints in the life to come.

At the same time, however, the Festival of All Saints has become one of the more misunderstood celebrations in the Church year. In liturgical traditions the day has held a high place in the Church’s calendar of feasts and festivals, resounding with the joy of Easter and God’s promise of resurrection made concrete in the raising of Jesus Christ and granted in the particular to all Christians through Holy Baptism. In non-liturgical traditions, however, All Saints Day is scarcely known and rarely observed. In fact, the secular corruption of the festival, Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, stands as a nearly unrecognizable vestige of the festival and demonstrates the insignificant and even ominous place to which it has been relegated.

In either case, some teaching about how Christians understand the word “saint” will be in order. Three options present themselves. First, it’s helpful to know that All Saints Day was originally set aside to commemorate all those martyrs from the early persecutions whose names were never recorded and thus whose memory was in constant peril of being lost. Over time, this celebration was extended to remember all who have lived and died in the faith and now rest eternally and triumphantly from their labors. We continue this aspect of the celebration when we name those persons of our individual parishes who have died in the last year and live now in the glory of God. In this regard, the fifteenth chapter of I Corinthians,
where Paul takes up the question of the resurrection, might be an excellent place to ground a sermon in the hope of life now and in the age to come that is ours in Christ. (See also the appointed gospel for Pentecost 24 — Luke 20:27-38 — which this year also falls on Nov. 7.)

A second dimension of the word “saint” was added during the Reformation by reclaiming the New Testament confession that all those who have been baptized into Christ and declared righteous by grace are, in fact, living saints of God.  In this regard, it is notable that the Apostle Paul addresses even the Christians in Corinth, those whom he has rebuked and castigated for many and various moral offenses, as saints, or holy ones (1 Corinthians 1:1-9).
Clearly, then, their sanctity – and our own! – is not one of moral achievement, nor even a complete triumph of grace in their lives, but rests, rather, upon their having been made objectively holy by God’s declaration in Baptism.  For this reason, we now celebrate All Saints not by contrasting the saints over there — those who have died and gone on to glory before us — with the would-be saints still over here.  Rather we recognize and celebrate our union with those for whom Christ died in every time and every place, a union secured by Christ’s death once and for all, established by our common baptism, nurtured by our life together, and brought to fulfillment in the age to come.

A final dimension of the word “saint” emphasizes that a saint is not only one who is made holy, but also one who is blessed by God. It’s in this final context that the traditional gospel reading for the day comes from the beatitudes. Luke’s starker, sparer rendition of Jesus’ teaching that we read this year underscores the peculiar, even radical understanding of blessing that animates the Christian tradition. Blessing, according to Jesus, far from being about material abundance, is to enjoy the regard and favor of God. And the God of Israel to whom Jesus bears witness reserves special regard for the poor, the maligned, the downtrodden. This God shows particular favor, that is, to those in need. While this may at first seem threatening to those of us who enjoy so much of the world’s bounty, it also clarifies our calling to identify and help those in need, and it promises that God stands also with us in our moments of loss, distress, and poverty. The heart of the God we hear described in these verses is full of mercy and compassion, abounding in steadfast love.

Whatever direction your celebration may take, Working Preacher, know that you, too, are among the saints of God, those called, commissioned, and now sent to be a blessing to the world and to bear witness to the grace and mercy of God we know chiefly in and through Christ Jesus our Lord. Thank you for your fidelity to this task and calling.

Blessed All Saints Day!
In Christ,

PS: If you’re interested in what readings Karoline and Matt, my brainwave co-hosts, would pick for All Saints, you can listen to this week’s podcast.