All Saints Day – Br. Curtis Almquist
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Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 44:1-14
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 infamous Pantheon at Rome to become a place for the solemn remembrance of Christian martyrs. So many hundreds and hundreds of Christians had been killed in the Pantheon before cheering spectators during the first three centuries of the church. Curiously, last night, Halloween – with its tricks or treats and costumes and fires – is connected to this holy day. The name “Halloween” comes from the Middle English halowen which means “hallowed” or “holy one.” 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? (For that matter, why Christmas Eve?) The most important reason traces its way back to the opening chapter of the Book of Genesis. A new day begins in the evening, not in the morning. 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 on. Did you catch that? Evening, then morning constitutes a day. If you and I were describing a full day, we would start with the morning, which then progresses to the evening. But that is not the chronology of the Genesis creation account. The day beginning with the evening is a practice still observed by both Muslims and Jews. For Muslims, Friday’s day of rest begins with sundown Thursday; for Jews, the sabbath day on Saturday begins with sundown on Friday. Here at the monastery, if you join us in the chapel for Saturday Evensong, we call this “The First Evensong of Sunday,” which are examples in the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions how the night belongs to the day that follows.
For Christians, just as we anticipate the celebration of Christmas beginning the night before – Christmas Eve – so we celebrate All Saints Day the night before with All Hallows Eve: Halloween. Well, that’s at least the history, though I think most children who were out last evening were thinking about candy and costumes, not about saints! 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 Eve (All Saints Eve) here in the west. The tradition around costumes, tricks or treats, and fires comes from a conflation of the traditions inherited by the early church. The pre-Christian Celtic tradition recognized a very “thin line” between life here on earth and life in the other world, the world of the departed.ii The Celts celebrated a festival on October 31st and November 1st when the spirits of the 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 family’s beloved ancestors were welcomed, and the 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 treats, or fright and tricks. Huge bonfires were lit to sacrifice both animals and crops to ward off the “ghosties and ghoulies and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night.”iii That’s the Celtic tradition of October 31st and November 1st which was eventually “baptized” by the church, reassigning the name and the date as All Hallows Day, i.e., All Saints Day.
That ancient Celtic tradition brings us to today. All Saints Day is a comforting tradition, a day to give us strength. Our first lesson from Ecclesiasticus began, “Let us now sing the praises of [our ancestors] in their generations.”iv We have an innate need for heroes, for mentors, for people to look up to and emulate, to show us the way. We need be able to recall the life of another person, to watch or imagine them, to recollect how they went about thinking, and talking, and acting, and believing. It’s to remember them, and 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, we never grow out of this need for “heroic people” in our life. Today, in the tradition of the church, we remember the heroes of the Christian faith, those whom the church has come to call “saints,”the hallowed ones, the holy ones. These are women and men, the memory of whose lives help make our own life seem possible and meaningful.
Are you drawn to a particular saint? If so, it may have something to do with the place or time in which they lived, what they faced, how they worked, what they thought or wrote or said, how they prayed, how they survived and thrived, how they suffered… There are reasons why we are attracted to particular people, and that is also true why we may be attracted to particular saints. However, it’s two-sided, surely. 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 in saying, “We believe in the communion of saints” (that is, our communion with the saints).”v There’s something real about the communication between this world and the world to come, a kind of communion between saints and souls 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 know our name, and who’ve got our number, and who remember us. It’s a wonderful thing to be eternally remembered. And I think we are.
If you are in a time of cheer just now, where your life is full of hope, where you have a sense of wellbeing and provision, where gratitude and praise is on your lips, how wonderful. You have a foretaste of the joy of heaven, with your soul echoing the songs and praises sung by the choirs, “this multitude… from every nation, from all tribes, and peoples and languages, standing before the throne of God rejoicing.”vi How wonderful for you if this be so, now.
If, on the other hand, you are now in a dark night of the soul where pain, despair, loss, or fear are your companions, how very difficult. You need the comfort that Jesus promises us.vii 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 the prayers of those who have gone before you and who are looking out for you. These are they who have survived the “ordeal” of this life, the saints who give witness that the promise we read in the Book of Revelation 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.”viii
We are not left alone; you are not left alone. The saints are a great cloud of heroic witnesses. They are bright celestial lights, “like stars appearing,” to enlighten the eyes of our heart and enlighten the path ahead especially during the dark nights for our soul. This “great cloud of witnesses” surrounds us and understands what the scriptures call our “running the race of life.”ix 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! “Run!” “You’re almost there!” That’s the image I have of the saints shouting cheers into our own souls, channeling us their strength. x And meanwhile they whisper into Jesus’ ears their words of pride, and praise, and love for you as you run the race, saying: “Isn’t she just wonderful!?” “Isn’t he amazing!?” I’m sure it’s true.
Today we remember all the saints because they remember us.
i Genesis 1:5ff.
ii The ancient Celts’ belief in the thin divide between earth and the otherworld was called “Samhain,” celebrated October 31st-November 1st.
iii An excerpt from an old Cornish prayer.
iv Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 44:1.
v The Baptismal Covenant from The Book of Common Prayer, pp. 304-305.
vi Paraphrased from Revelation 7:9.
vii Matthew 5:1-12.
viii Paraphrased from Revelation 7:16-17.
ix“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,” (Hebrews 12:1-3).
x 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 9:24-27). “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). See also Psalm 119:32; Isaiah 40:31; Habakkuk 2:2; Galatians 5:7; Hebrews 12:1.
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I hope to hold onto these words as the years progress. Your compassion is lovely and comforting.
What a wonderful series of images told with such conviction.