All Souls Day
Isaiah 25:6-9, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, John 5:24-27
Today is the third of a trio: Halloween, All Saints and All Souls. We transferred two of them, celebrating All Saints on Sunday and now All Souls today. These three ground us in mortality and in blessed hope as we remember the dead.
All Saints Day began in the sixth century to remember the life and witness of hundreds of Christians who were killed for their faith during the first three centuries of the Church. Halloween—Hallow’s Eve—is the evening before All Hallows Day, meaning “holy” or “saint” which we now call All Saints Day.
Why the eve? Why Hallow’s Eve? For that matter, why Christmas Eve? In the first creation account in the Book of Genesis, 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.” (1) And then, “there was evening and there was morning, the second day,” and so on. In Genesis the day begins with the evening. Though we would say a day is morning and evening, in Jewish tradition, the Sabbath still begins Friday evening.
Back to Halloween. The tradition around costumes and tricks or treats comes from merging traditions of the early church—which remember the holy ones who have died before us—and the pre-Christian Celtic tradition which saw and celebrated a very “thin” divide between life on earth and the world of the dead, particularly on October 31st. (2)
Memorable costumes were worn for telling 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. The church eventually adopted this tradition and reassigned the name and the date for All Hallows or now All Saints Day.
In the Bible, “saint” describes everyone in Christian community. But for a very long time, saint has often been linked with particular people, heroes of the faith. Though we are all saints, All Souls Day was added in the tenth century as a time to remember all the dead, not simply the notable ones, and to particularly remember deceased family and friends.
We remember the dead to give thanks for them, for their lives, for who they were to and for us. We give thanks for their love, companionship, for how they nurtured or shaped or formed us, for the goodness in their lives that touched and further enlightened ours. We remember because they remain important to us. They are, as our prayer book says, ones “we love but see no longer.”
We remember the dead in confidence that God has power over death. As tonight’s reading from the Letter to the Thessalonians reminds us: do “not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.”
In death, “life is changed, not ended.” Christ the Victorious broke the power of death and shares this victory with us. Though created mortal—we are dust and to dust we shall return—Jesus raises us in victory to life beyond the grave.
As we heard from the prophet Isaiah, God will eventually eliminate death: “swallow up death forever. … and wipe away tears from all faces.” Remember the dead in hope. While sad because we see them no longer, the dead shall live. Death does not have the final word. More is to come.
God’s love and light and life extends beyond to everyone everywhere, including in the grave. In today’s gospel text, we read: “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” Even in death, God gives more.
We enter and leave this mortal life in need. We enter as needy infants. Some die young, even very young. Some die in their prime. Some die after age or disease has worn out or damaged the body. Some die having become like children again, dependent on others’ care. No matter what age or what state our bodies are in, no matter how much we have grown up and matured or developed, we all die wounded and incomplete.
We need more and can receive more beyond the grave. “The dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” Not simply be awake. Live. Grow. Develop. Continue to heal. Now this is a thin divide to celebrate. Grace goes beyond the grave!
In a moment, we will lift up a list of loved ones’ names read aloud. Let me offer a few suggestions about how to pray for the dead together and on our own.
First, give thanks for loved ones. What are you most grateful for about them? What do you most miss? What memories or teaching or inspiration do you treasure? Say thank you.
Second, give thanks for Christ’s victory. Give thanks that life is changed, not ended. Give thanks for resurrection now and in the future. Claim this good news.
Third, ask for more grace. Ask for more healing where they died broken, wounded, and incomplete. Ask for healing of the soul, healing of relationship. Ask for more light and love and life for them and for yourself. Grace abounds, even in the grave. Ask for it.
As we name the dead in prayer and receive God in bread and wine, give thanks in blessed hope, and ask for more.
- Genesis 1:5ff
- The ancient Celts’ belief in the thin divide between earth and the otherworld was called “Samhain,” celebrated October 31st.
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