All Saints Day
In her book A Passion for Life, Joan Chittister, a progressive, Catholic Benedictine nun writes “For centuries the church has confronted the human community with role models of greatness. We call them saints when what we really often mean is “icon,” “star,” “hero,” ones so possessed by an internal vision of divine goodness that they give us a glimpse of the face of God in the center of the human. They give us a taste of the possibilities of greatness in ourselves.”
Episcopalians use the word saint in a biblical way. When we talk about the saints we are not just talking about the famous and not-so-famous departed persons that have earned a special day on the church calendar nor are we only talking about our beloved deceased friends and family who have gone to their reward. Scripture uses the word saint to refer to all the faithful, including all of us here today.
The first reading this morning was from the Revelation of John, that strange book so often misunderstood by Christians. The visions of its author were originally meant to provide hope to the persecuted church that lived near the end of the first century. The text appointed for this celebration of All Saints depicts a scene in heaven as people from every nation, tribe, and language gather before God. They carry palm branches and are robed in white—symbolic of the victory in Jesus of life over death and the forgiveness from sin that he won for us all on the cross.
The vision of John is one in which “a new heaven and a new earth” becomes visible. It tells us that salvation is not simply about the afterlife or the end of time as we know it, but rather that heaven begins here, now, whenever we get caught up in life as God intended it to be lived. And the Gospel today preaches those kingdom values that are at the core of the life God wants for us. They are called the Beatitudes—blessed attitudes toward living. They confront us with another vision—the ideal vision God has for us and who we can be. They tell us: “You are loved; live like it. You are redeemed; live like it. You are a saint; live like it. Become what you already are.”
What is this “communion of saints” we will recognize in the renewal of our baptismal covenant this morning? What we are talking about is much more than a loose relationship or connection between the living and departed. We are talking about that communion of holy persons from whom we have inherited a faith strong enough, flexible enough, and deep enough to shape our lives and guide our choices. We celebrate today the unity of strangers that forms around the image of the Christ who calls us beyond our past into what can be an exciting but demanding future.
On our way to that future we gather here weekly where we are bound to the unfinished work of turning the world upside down—bringing that world as we know it to the world of the beatitudes Jesus gives us in the Gospel of this feast. And we are bound to those who have modeled that life before us teaching us by the way they lived and letting us see in their struggle that, even though it may be quite a hike, it is fully attainable.
The Baptismal covenant is not so much a call to believe in the church. It is a call to follow Jesus in his passion for justice, peace, healing, and reconciliation for all people. It is fairly easy to believe in a church that makes us feel holy because we are committed to a list of “dos” and “don’ts” and public and private. To believe in the Christ who measures saintliness by our relationships to the rest of God’s children— the entire human race—is the real measure of holiness.
We celebrate this festival of saints today because we are bound to one another, each generation a link to the next, each generation a model for the one to come. The communion of saints is represented here today in the amazing diverse tapestry of people who are part of our faith community and of so many others throughout the world and in what we do in our lives as we take them out into the world.
Author Pinkola Estes writes that “one of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.”
This festival of All Saints is an annual pep rally, a day of deep reflection about God’s call to each of us to stand up and show our soul—to shine our light in the world. This is a day of thanksgiving for all those sainted folk who have gone before us and those who walk along beside us, giving us a taste of the possibilities of greatness within us. And now we about to renew our own baptismal covenant, assured that as we do, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses cheering us on and leading us on our way.