There’s a culture clash keeping All Saints on Hallowe’en. As the world around parades spiders and witches the Church of Jesus Christ celebrates ‘the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting’.
As that faith has waned around us pagan New Year’s Eve has revived. When Christianity came here the Celtic Festival of Samhain (pronounced Sow-in) celebrated new year 1 November linked to the start of winter cold associated with the increase of human death. On their New Year’s Eve Celts believed the worlds of the living and dead got blurred with ghosts returning to earth.
As we keep the Solemnity of All Saints we go beyond that blurring into the actual identification of living and dead, the ‘knitting together of God’s elect in one death-defying communion and fellowship in the mystical body of Christ’ (Collect).
This morning we celebrate our fellowship beyond death with the saints and faithful departed blurring heaven and earth as expressed in our second reading: ‘the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his people’ (Revelation 21:3).
Such is our faith, forward looking, death-defying and in solidarity with all those ‘upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude which no one can number, whose hope was in Jesus and with whom in the Lord Jesus we are for ever one’.
In the end we face one of two alternatives: to have God, and in him everything, or to have nothing but ourselves. Such is Christian faith and it has never changed. The Feast of All Saints and Tuesday’s Commemoration of All Souls are the annual reminder of the call to selflessness foundational to the universe.
God who gave life to all things including you and I has offered us his life the humble welcoming of which is the remedy for mortality. ‘To all who receive him, who believe in his name, he gives power to become children of God… born… of God’ (John 1:12-13).
All Saints Feast is a reminder of the death defying dignity implied in today’s Gospel of the raising of Lazarus in which Our Lord, having promised to be our life and resurrection, goes on to demonstrate the same by raising his friend from death.
Those committed to a relationship with God in Christ can never be lost. Death cannot steal them from the One whose glorious resurrection establishes him as our ‘Alpha and Omega, (our) beginning and (our) end’ (Revelation 21:6a). ‘The souls of the righteous’ - right related to God - ‘are in his hands’ we heard in our first reading from the book of Wisdom. ‘In the eyes of the foolish’ that is materialists who deny the supernatural ‘they seemed to have died… but they are at peace… their hope is full of immortality’ (Wisdom 3:1-4). Such is Christian faith, grounded in the risen Lord Jesus, who gives us a purpose for living and a reason for dying.
The Solemnity of All Saints sets our sights upon the Christian distinctive. This isn’t doing good to others - how patronising to see Christians as unique in that realm! Our Christian distinctive, stated in Ephesians 1:10, is the invitation to be part of the aspiration and accomplishment of ‘gathering up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth’. The gathering of people into the communion of saints is itself part of God’s overarching plan for a wider gathering that brings all things in the cosmos or, as we might say, multiverses, into universal love as shared by the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit with all the saints.
Today’s Feast reminds us we are never ‘in it on our own’ as Christians. Just as the social engagement of St John’s is teamwork - and we always need more hands on deck for outreach - the work we do for others as individuals is part of something beyond us but absolutely beside us. That is the work alongside us of the invisible fellowship of the saints in light towards bringing the universe together in Christ. Each day I invoke the prayers of my own favourites. Our Lady for trust in God. St Francis for joy. St Vincent de Paul for love for the needy. St. John Vianney inspiring me to be a listening priest. St Therese of Lisieux warming my heart to God. St. John Henry Newman helping me give answers to questions I get about Faith - and so on.
Contemplating God alongside the saints is a welcome school of selflessness. Anglican teacher, Eric Mascall expresses this well in his book ‘Grace & Glory’: ‘It is by becoming progressively more self-forgetful, and not by becoming more self-analytic, that our love of God grows in strength and depth. And perhaps the most effective way of imitating the saints is the indirect way of thanking God for the fact that they have served Him so much better than we. For in the Body of Christ we are not simply concerned with achieving our individual perfection but with making our own small contribution to the perfection of the whole body. And in its organic union with the holiness of our fellow-members and, above all, with the supreme and spotless holiness of Christ who is the Body’s Head, our own feeble essays in holiness are clothed with a glory and stamped with a value of which in isolation they would be utterly incapable’. Mascall goes on to quote Thomas Merton on the challenge to self-forgetfulness behind today’s Feast, a quotation which will be followed by a short time of reflection on the word of God. ‘The saints are glad to be saints, not because their sanctity makes them admirable to others, but because the gift of sainthood makes it possible for them to admire everybody else’.