Updated: Aug 5, 2021
There are seven principal feasts in the Episcopal Church calendar – and some of these get more press than others. Christmas is the remembrance of Christ’s birth. Pentecost (otherwise known as “the day we wear red”) commemorates the establishment of the Church. And of course Easter is the very foundation of Christian belief, celebrating the day that our Savior Jesus Christ rose from the dead ensuring salvation for all of us. So, where does that leave All Saint’s Day?
The first commemoration of All Saint’s Day occurred in the fourth century, when Christians decided it was important to remember particular martyrs and leaders of the faith. It was formalized in the seventh century and the feast date of November 1 was established in the eighth. In Great Britain All Saints’ was known as Hallowmass, so the night before it was called, “All Hallows’ Eve,” which was later shortened to “Halloween.” There has been speculation that the church picked November 1for the feast because it coincided with the popular Celtic harvest festival of Samhain. For that reason, some Christian churches still forbid the celebration of Halloween because they consider it to be pagan – but there is no evidence that All Hallows’ Eve itself was ever a pagan holiday. It has always been tied to the celebration of the saints.
In the 18th century, Age of Reason theologians wanted to do away with All Saint’s’ Day because they thought it was too superstitious, but in recent years, the church has not only solidified the need for a day to remember saints, but clarified that today is not just a day for particularly “holy” people, but for all those who have lived lives faithful to God.
The basis for this understanding can be found in today’s reading from Daniel. Daniel is a strange book, filled with disturbing and fascinating visions. Among them is the one we heard today, in which Daniel has a really bad dream about God’s kingdom being attacked by four beasts. Readers of Daniel have offered many different interpretations about what those four horrific beasts represent, but the truth is that “such monsters [have continually and still appear] on the stage of history, always wreaking devastation and destruction in their attempts” to establish their own glorious and invincible kingdoms, arrogantly believing that they are greater than the God of creation.
Daniel’s vision frightens him, just as we frightened when we see the rise of “beasts” who speak with hate and act with cruelty, who mime empathy but objectify others, and who promise life but bring only death. Fortunately, like Daniel, our scriptures allow us to know the truth – to hear “the revelation of God, hidden within the apocalypse.” “The holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever.” God will save his people – not just some, but all of them. We know this because the Hebrew word translated in this passage as “holy ones” is not the word that is commonly used to mean “pious” or “kind.” Rather, it is best translated as “set apart,” or “made holy,” – “made holy by God’s naming.”
All Saints isn’t just for those who do particularly valiant deeds or make magnificent sacrifices for the church then. It identifies all people who are set aside by their faith in God. It is for the entire community of Christ. As Christians, we do not live as individuals – and we cannot achieve salvation on our own. Scripture tells us that we live, die, and are judged as a community. This is hard for many of us to understand. We just can’t seem to shake the idea that we can earn redemption – that if only we can just be as strong, as brave, as kind, or as pure as the saints, we too will inherit eternal life. But the gift of the sacrifice of the only perfect human says we do not need to be any of these things. By virtue of our faith in Jesus we are, as the songwriter says, all of us saints of God. We have, as Paul tells, been marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit and redeemed as God’s people – holy people, heirs of eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
That does not mean that we can do whatever we want. As believers in Jesus, we are also followers of Jesus – and that means trying to live as he commanded – that is, in loving relationship with others. No biblical passage makes this clearer than today’s reading from Luke. Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
Jesus’s demand that we love one another is unqualified. He doesn’t say, “Love those who you think deserve it.” He doesn’t say, “Give as much as you feel comfortable with.” He doesn’t say, “It’s perfectly reasonable to be afraid of people who are different from you.” What Jesus does say is that being successful is not the same as being blessed – that the people who are truly blessed are those who need God the most. What jeopardizes our relationship with God, then, is not our inability to follow ancient laws that Jesus has already fulfilled for us, but rather “the temptation to think that we can take care of ourselves.”
“If you want anything to do with Jesus or the God who sent him… you had better go find the poor, the hungry, the captives, the blind, and the outcast, and join Jesus as Jesus cares for them. The way we know who Jesus is is to go where Jesus is.” And Jesus did not hang around with the wealthy, the powerful, and the aggressive. He is not to be found among those who live with swords and guns in their hands, seeking vengeance for perceived wrongs and punishing people for who they are. That is not the way of the man who told his disciple to put away his sword when he was being led to his death. It is not the way of the one who came to fulfill the law with a selfless gift of love.
To live the way of Christ is to live in relationship with others -in this world and the next. That is a blessing – because it is through our relationships with others that we can see glimpses of the eternal life that has been promised to us. It is by remembering the saints who have gone before us to God’s promised land that we believe that such eternal joy is possible for us. It is through our relationships with the saints – living and dead – that we find hope. “In the ebb and flow of human history, with the many outrages that are perpetrated against humankind, it is easy to become disillusioned… [But] the saints of God are to take heart. The victory of God’s kingdom is not in doubt… [it] has been sealed and settled in the death and resurrection of the son of God.” Only together can we truly hope. Together we can have true faith. Together we can do God’s good will. And together we will experience the unequalled and everlasting presence of our God. AMEN.
Bryan Spinks, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 220.
Donna Schaper, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 223.
Pamela Cooper-White, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 220.
E. Elizabeth Johnson, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 241.
E. Elizabeth Johnson, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 239.