The tradition of All Saints Day, which we celebrate today, traces its history back to the sixth century. At that time Pope Boniface consecrated the Pantheon at Rome as a place of solemn remembrance for the life and witness of so many hundreds and hundreds of Christians who were martyred there during the first three centuries of the church. Curiously, last night, Halloween – with its sometimes-bizarre tricks or treats and costumes and fires – is connected to this holy day. The name “Halloween” comes from the Middle English halowen which means “holy” or “saint.” And so, Halloween is the evening before All Hallows Day, i.e., All Saints Day. Now hold that thought for a moment.
Why does “the Eve,” the evening before a significant day, matter? Why All Hallows Eve? (Why the importance of Christmas Eve, for that matter?) Two reasons. One reason traces its way back to the opening chapter of the Book of Genesis. In the creation account, we read that “God called the light Day, and the darkness God called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”i And then, “there was evening and there was morning, the second day,” and then, “there was evening and there was morning, the third day,” and so forth. Did you catch that? Evening, then morning constitutes a day. If we were describing a full day, we would start with the morning, which progresses to the evening. But that is not the chronology of the Genesis creation account. The day begins with the evening, a practice still observed, for example, in the Jewish tradition to begin the sabbath day (Saturday, the seventh day of creation) at sundown on Friday… because at sundown the new day begins: the evening then the morning, a day. That’s one reason why “the eve” is important, because of the tradition that the new day begins at sundown, and out of the deep darkness precedes the dawning light. And so we remember Christmas Eve, All Hallows Eve preceding the holy day. The other reason why “the eve” is important is simply because we get excited about a coming festal day. You need only look to a child or remember your own childhood to know the wonders of a sleepless night as you can hardly wait for the dawning of a special day.
So back to Halloween, All Hallows (All Saints) Eve here in the west. The tradition around costumes, tricks or treats, and fires comes from a conflation of the traditions of the early church – to remember the holy ones who have died before us – and the pre-Christian Celtic tradition, which recognized a very “thin” divide between life here on earth and life in the other world, the world of the dead.ii The Celts celebrated a festival on October 31st when the spirits of deceased passed through this thin divide between earth and heaven, a kind of communion with the dead (if the spirits were good) and a frightening kind of disunion with the dead (if the spirits were bad). A families’ beloved ancestors were welcomed and evil spirits were warded off. Memorable costumes were worn for the telling of good stories about the departed. Frightening costumes were worn to scare off evil spirits. It was a day of feast and treat, or fright and tricks. Huge bonfires were lit to sacrifice animals and crops and to ward off “ghosties and ghoulies and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night.”iii That’s the Celtic tradition of October 31st, eventually “baptized” by church which reassigned the name and the date for the remembrance of All Hallows Day, i.e., All Saints Day.
That tradition – what was holy and what was made holy – brings us to today, All Saints Day, which is a comforting tradition, a day to give us strength. We have an innate need for heroes, for models, for people to look up to and emulate, to show us the way. We have an innate need to be able to look into the face of another person, to watch them, to see how they go about thinking and talking and living and believing, to remember them, and to be able to say to ourselves, “When I grow up, I want to become like her,” or “If he can do it, so can I…” However old we are, I don’t think we ever grow out of this need for there to be “heroic people” in our life.
Today, in the tradition of the church, we are reminded of the heroes of our faith, those whom the church has come to call “saints,” hallowed, holy ones. These are women and men, the memory of whose lives help make our own life seem possible and passable. And for you, are there particular saints of the church, heroes of the faith, to whom you are especially drawn? If so, why might that be? It might be quite interesting. It’s probably something about the time in which they lived, what they faced, how and where they worked, what they said, how they prayed… There are reasons why we are attracted to particular people, and there are reasons why we may be attracted to particular saints. But I would say it’s two-sided. We may be attracted to particular saints because they are attracted to us, this “thin divide” between earth and heaven, between this life and the next.
Momentarily we will be invited to join in renewing our own Baptismal Covenant where we say, “we believe in the communion of saints” (that’s our communion with the saints), the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”iv There’s something real about the communication between this world and the world to come, a kind of communion between saints and souls and sinners that spans the gulf of time. It is not just we who are praying, but we are being prayed for by a great cloud of heroic witnesses, some of whom, I believe, are attracted to us, individually, who have our name and have our number and who remember us. It’s a wonderful thing to be remembered. I think we are.
If you are in a time of cheer just now, where your life is full of hope, a sense of well being and provision, where gratitude and praise is on your lips, how wonderful. You have a foretaste of the joy of heaven, your soul echoing the songs praise sung in the heavens by “this multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne of God rejoicing.”v If, on the other hand, you are in a dark night of the soul where pain, despair, and loss are your companions, how very sad. Presume that your dark night is the eve of the dawning of a new day, and that you are not alone. You are being carried on the wings of prayers of those who have gone before you and who are looking out for you, those who have survived the “ordeal” of this life, those who can give witness, already, that the eternal promise is true:
“[You] will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike [you], nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be [your] shepherd, and he will guide [you] to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from [your] eyes.”vi
We are not alone; you are not alone. There is this “a great cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us.vii I have this image of a child running a race, and along the sidelines are all these older people shouting out cheers and encouragements to the child: “You can do it!” “Go for it! You’ll make it!” That’s the image I have of all the saints – and some particular saints on your own sidelines – shouting cheers into your own soul… and meanwhile whispering into Jesus’ ears words of pride and praise about you: “Isn’t he something!?” “Isn’t she amazing!?” It’s true.viii
Today we remember all the saints because they remember us.
vii Hebrews 12:1-3 “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.”
viii Saint Paul uses the image of “a race” to describe life on this earth. “Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.” (1 Corinthians 9.24) “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4.7)
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