In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
In the run-up to Halloween, I read an interesting article about a growing suburban trend called “boo-bagging.” It involves leaving Halloween treats on a neighbor’s steps with the understanding that they now have to do it for someone else in the neighborhood. While some may appreciate the opportunity this could afford to build relationships in the neighborhood community, the author found it less than helpful. Though at the end she admitted that she would continue the practice herself, the reason for her reticence was the reality that Halloween is one of the few holidays that you can still celebrate however you want. Unlike Thanksgiving or Christmas or New Years’ of Valentines Day, for Halloween you are under no obligations.
Thankfully, “boo-bagging” has not yet trended on my own street. I say thankfully because of my memory of how long it took me to pass along the “Christmas” plate to another neighbor on the street. When I finally did my neighborly duty, I tried to joke as I noted that we were still in the feast of Christmas because the whole feast lasts twelve days… but for some reason I doubt I convinced my neighbor of this fact. I resonate with the author in a way, because so many other holidays can indeed turn into times of solely social or family obligation, sucking the joy from what should be a delightful celebration. I love that when Halloween rolls around, Bethany and I get to decide whether or not to go to a party. I love that I can celebrate it in sweatpants, passing entirely too much candy to kids (“Go ahead, take three or four pieces!”) while their parents look on disapprovingly. But I will say that I am, to use language of the season, slightly haunted by the idea that, for Halloween, you are under no obligations.
I suppose I should clarify that I am operating tonight under the assumption that those hardy souls who come to a joyous weekday celebration of All Saints’ Day are precisely the sort who know why I’m talking about Halloween at all. I’m sure you all know that Halloween derives its name from today’s feast. November first is All Saints’ Day and the evening before, October 31, is thus All Saints’ Eve (similar to how December 24 is Christmas Eve). And, of course, the use of slightly older English turns All Saints’ Eve into All Hallows’ Even. (Think of the Lord’s Prayer, where the way we say we want God’s name to be made holy is for it to be hallowed). Saint. Hallow. Holy One. The words all mean the same. And it just takes a slight turn of the English language for All Hallows’ Even to become Halloween.
Yes, I’m sure none of this is news to you.
And so, while there are Christian traditions that shy away from Halloween celebrations, viewing the zombies and vampires and ghosts and ghouls as an unhealthy celebration of evil, the tradition of the church has long celebrated the importance of All Saints’ Day and the other moments that surround it, ranging from the Eve of the feast to the All Souls’ Day commemorations on the next day. Indeed, the tradition of the church has long been that the line between our world and the world beyond is likely not as strong as we might think. In some ways, you might even say that this is a particularly Anglican feast, given its connection to Celtic spirituality. For Celtic spirituality understands the link between our world and the next much better than modern Christianity.
In the final weeks before Bethany and I came to St. John’s, I was blessed to spend some time on the Isle of Iona, one of this historic sites for Christianity on the British Isles. This island off the coast of northern Scotland is one of the many “thin places” of early Celtic Christianity. The Celtic Christians were emphatic in their belief in the immanence of God, that is, the idea that God is very near, that God is in all places. Strangely enough, this ability to see God in all places was also the foundation for the idea that there are some places where the divine is more palpable. These are called “thin places,” locations where the seen and unseen worlds touch one another, where you almost get the sense that you can lean a little into the wind and discover a whole separate world just beyond our sight.
The time during the year, now in the late fall, when this feast always falls, is in some ways a “thin time” for many Christians throughout the world. There are celebrations of the Day of the Dead and beliefs that the spirits of ancestors visit their families. The vast communion of the saints becomes a bit more… clear. Of course, we confess in the Nicene Creed every Sunday that we believe in the communion of saints. During this time, however, we are drawn as Christians to the reality of our confession. And whether or not some cultures are correct in believing that during this time of year the veil between our world and the next becomes thinner, I think there is probably great wisdom in setting aside a day during the year to celebrate the saints of the Church, of saying death does not destroy our Christian fellowship.
And so November 1 was eventually named All Saints’ Day. In the seventh century, there was a feast to Mary and all Martyrs in the spring. But in the eighth century, Pope Gregory III founded an oratory in St. Peter’s for the relics “of the holy apostles and of all saints, martyrs and confessors, of all the just made perfect who are at rest throughout the world,” proclaiming a new feast. This November 1 celebration was promulgated and the former spring celebration was suppressed.
In the centuries following, November 2 also came to be regarded as a special day of its own, eventually receiving the name All Souls’ Day, a day for the church to pray for the departed. The distinction being that on All Saints’ Day the church remembers those departed who have entered into the nearer presence of God sometimes called the beatific vision while All Souls’ Day is for those who have died by who may not yet have finished their journey into the divine. During the Reformation, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day became fused in many Christian traditions. However, the 1979 Prayer Book restored the practice of celebrating All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days separately. We’ll talk more about that tomorrow, at our 7pm Requiem Eucharist.
We are left, for now, with this celebration of All Saints’ Day. While Anglicanism has never had quite the rigid process for declaring who is and who isn’t a saint like the Roman church, we still seem to want to have a day set aside to celebrate the great cloud of witnesses, those who have gone before and have proven to be examples of what it truly means to follow Christ. I think it’s probably less a celebration of a precise group who we can somehow clarify have entered fully into the presence of God and more a celebration of the reality that it is even possible for a human to enter into the presence of God.
After all, when you think of it, that is a rather remarkable statement: it is possible for a human to enter into the presence of God. That’s just as remarkable as the lives of some of the saints of the church commemorated on our calendar.
All of this, I think, brings me back to where I began: that author who wrote about Halloween and her own delight that it was a holiday during which she did not find herself under any obligations. I suppose All Saints’ Day, along with All Hallows’ Eve preceding it and All Souls’ Day following, I suppose all of this could just be a delightfully fun celebration to cheer us up as the weather begins to turn. I suppose that could be the case.
But I think it’s meant to be more. We are given these images in our Scripture readings. We’re given an image of the throne room of God in Revelation, as a great multitude from every nation, from all tribes and peoples, stands before the throne of God, crying out in a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
We hear Jesus teach in Matthew about the blessed of God, those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are merciful, those who are pure in heart, those who are peacemakers, those who are persecuted.
I think we are given these images in our Scripture readings and we naturally think of the saints of the church. We think of Peter and Paul, of Francis and Mother Theresa. We think of Mary, Mother of God and first among the saints. We think of what the Apostle Paul describes as a great cloud of witnesses, who are even now watching us, praying for us, though our eyes cannot see them.
We think of all of this and I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel delighted and entertained.
I feel called.
I feel summoned.
I feel, dare I say, obligated.
Because though I rarely feel like a saint, I consider this vast multitude worshiping God and praying for us, and I hear the words of the patron of this parish, words given in our second reading, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”
I feel obligated. I feel obligated to push past my poor vision and to see the saints of the church surrounding us, standing at the horns of the altar of our parish, joining us as we sing the sanctus. I feel obligated to push past my poor vision, even my poor vision of who I am, and to see something else: what we will yet be. John tells us it has not yet been revealed. I’d suggest we’ve seen glimpses of it in the saints.
I think this feast is meant to do more than delight us, to do more than encourage us. I think it is to make each and every one of us aware of our holy obligation: for within the frailty of your flesh and the hesitancy of your life there exists the person God is aching to be revealed: a holy light, a saint of the church. The text from 1 John suggests that the more we see God the more we become like God. And so on this day of all days, as we consider those who have most modeled God to us, we should each feel obligated to be more than we are, to do more than we do, to say more than we say, to give more than we give, and—more than anything—to love more than we love.
To turn a phrase of that lovely old Anglican hymn, they were all of them saints of God… do you mean, God-helping, to be one too?