Last night was Halloween, which is a “holiday” that just about everyone celebrates in one form or another. Our subdivision was filled last night with little (and, disturbingly, not-so-little) ghouls and goblins trooping from door to door in search of this year’s cache of sugary loot. But while you may be waking up this morning still a little loopy from sampling the kids’ candy stash, I want to introduce you to another really “holy day”—All Saints Day.
Traditionally, All Saints Day has had a couple of meanings. In the old days there was All Saints Day, which celebrated those Christians who had been singled out as exceptionally “saints” of the church—your Mother Theresa types, that sort of thing—followed the next day by “All Souls Day” when the rest of the departed hoi polloi of the church was honored—your regular Christians.
But, biblically speaking, “saint” is a word that is most often used to connote a regular, faithful Christian. There was no celebrity saint distinction in the early church, so a lot of traditions have dropped All Souls while still others have dropped the whole concept of honoring the righteous dead altogether. That’s a grave mistake, in my opinion (pun absolutely intended).
If Halloween night is all about poking at our fear of death (which, after all, is what all that scariness is ultimately about–candy notwithstanding), then All Saints Day is a reminder that we are a people who believe in the resurrection of the dead and that those who have gone before us are part of the “great cloud of witnesses,” waiting for the day of when death is defeated forever and earth and heaven are one. All Saints Day, like the little Easter we celebrate every Sunday, reminds us that we are not bound by the ghoulish fear of death and the darkness of All Hallows Eve, but that we look forward to a resurrection of our own, made possible because death will no longer have dominion over us. Just like those saints who have gone before us, our lives can have eternal significance, our work in the present has eternal implications; we have a place in the coming Kingdom of God and a role in making it a reality in the present. When that Kingdom becomes a reality, as Jurgen Moltmann puts it so wonderfully: “Death will die, not-being will be no longer, hell will go to hell.”
Indeed, even the ritual that marks all of the faithful for sainthood reminds us of this reality. When we are baptized, our death becomes enfolded into Jesus’ death on our behalf and in the victorious reality of resurrection, and we can begin a life of eternal significance. I like how Tom Long describes this in his marvelous book Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral:
“Because God did not raise only the idea of Jesus or the spirit of Jesus but the body of Jesus, what makes up the embodied stuff of our lives—our relationships, the words we have spoken, the acts of love we have done—counts, counts eternally. The commitments of our lives and the places we have placed our bodies are gathered up by the power of God and transformed in the resurrection into the very life of God” (45).
On All Saints Day, we celebrate this reality—that those saints who have gone before us, whether we hold them in our conscious memory as loved ones or whether they are not yet known to us, will all be known in the Kingdom and their work and life celebrated in the light of God’s new creation. We will join together with them in this new reality, unimpeded by death in any form, and become part of God’s glorious future—a new heavens and a new earth, with new bodies for new work, new worship, and new life.
In the interim, we still deal with death and the pain of loss, but we do so knowing that it isn’t the last word. Through our tears of grief, we remember resurrection and can shake our fist in the face of ghoulish, ghastly death: “Where, O Death, is your victory. Where, O Death is your sting? But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” shouts Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:57. We celebrate today because we know that great cloud of witnesses has come before us and we build on their legacy. “Therefore, my beloved,” Paul continues, “be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (v. 58).
So, on this All Saints Day, I invite you to offer a special prayer for a person or persons who is now part of the great cloud of witnesses, awaiting the resurrection at the last day. Thank God for their influence in your life, thank God for those whose influence you may not even realize. And (because of resurrection we can be this bold), pray for those who will come after you and build on the work you are doing today for Christ and the Kingdom. Let us be saints who share the legacy of saints!
Just a little something to chew on along with all that candy…