The Reverend Kathleen Killian
Nov. 1, 2020
All Saints A 2020
This week, when I went to write my sermon, I did something a little different. I didn’t get to my usual spot for study, reading and writing. Rather than facing east toward the river and morning light, I went into the back room that faces west up a small hill and into some woods. Looking away from the flow of the river to the stillness of the woods, I thought to myself: this is an appropriate orientation for reflection upon the saints, for west is the direction of the setting sun and end of day, a place of completion and rest, and symbolically, the final rest of death; thus the west points toward union with God. All of which we celebrate on this feast of All Saints: time set aside to remember our loved ones who have died and to remember God’s promise of eternal life; to mourn the absence of many, and to celebrate God’s continuing presence; to listen for the message of ancient scripture, and hear of revelation, that the Lamb is risen and worshiped by a great multitude from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages (Revelation 7:9).
All Saints is indeed a feast that emphasizes “all”; we remember not only all Christians who have died, but all who have died unknown in the wider fellowship of the church; as well, we remember all of the faithful who are now living. That’s a lot of holy folks or saints, which is perhaps why All Saints is part of a hallow or holy tide that includes All Hallow’s Eve and All Souls Day tomorrow, three days of communion between heaven and earth, the living and the dead.
All Hallows Eve or Holy Evening (Halloween as we commonly know it), dates back to the ancient Celts who marked their new year at this time with the festival Samhain, a “thin” time when the veils between the immanent and transcendent were more transparent. The souls of the dead were said to return to their homes, and large bonfires were set aflame to frighten away any evil spirits that came with them. By the 9th century and Christianization of the British Isles, the church had converted this pagan holy day to the feast of All Saints, in commemoration of martyrs, both known and unknown.
All Souls Day, November 2nd, known in some parts of the world as Day of the Dead, was also observed by the early church. Prayers and masses were said for those who had died, especially loved ones. While the Protestant reform of the 15th century rejected this practice for a number of reasons, All Souls is still observed today in the Roman and Anglo-Catholic church, and was reinstated in the 1979 BCP as the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed.
Our faith affirms a prayerful spiritual bond between the living and the dead, and the communion of all the saints in the mystical body of Christ. In honor of Allhallowtide, as I was walking through woods this weekend, I named aloud in prayer and blessing all those I know who have died, and as many of my ancestors, and as many of the saints, that I know and could remember. There are hundreds if not thousands of “named” saints, who have been exceptionally holy, heroic, and virtuous, their histories and hagiographies filled with crazy wisdom, the impossible miraculous, as well as undeserved torment and suffering. I can’t say that I aspire to this kind of sainthood, but as faithful Christians who share life in Christ, saints we are.
Trappist monk Thomas Merton writes in his book The Seven Story Mountain of being asked as a young adult what he wanted to be. His answer was that he wanted to be a good Catholic. But his good friend, Lax, said to him: what you should say is that you want to be a saint—which struck Merton as a little weird, and a lot impossible, and so he asked his friend: How do you expect me to become a saint? By wanting to, his friend said. But I can’t be a saint, Merton said, I can’t be.
He goes on to write that this brief exchange turned out to be a profound moment in the life of his soul. He became acutely aware of a false kind of humility that tells us we cannot do the things we must, that we cannot become who we are meant to be, and of the cowardice that says—I am self-satisfied. To Merton, this meant that he didn’t (and that we don’t) truly want to give up sins and attachments and change and evolve; it’s not that we can’t be saints, it’s that we won’t.
It would seem that we who are all-too willing sinners are also all-too reluctant saints, and that our reluctance has something to do with the ambition of satisfaction or the lack of desire to be wanting—for anything—as we are entitled to have it all, are we not? But perhaps some of our reluctance is understandable when you consider what is expected of us saints as found in the teachings of Jesus.
In this morning’s gospel we heard the Beatitudes, part of Jesus’s lengthy Sermon on the Mount. They are not commandments or rules to be kept, but profound and poetic spiritual teachings about life in the kingdom of God. They speak to a very different way than that of the world, which acclaims the wealthy, the audacious, the satisfied, the clever, the powerful, the grinning, the mighty, and the warring. Jesus holds up the poor, the meek, the hungry, the pure, the merciful, the grieving, the peacemakers, and the persecuted as blessed, happy, and fortunate. The blessing that Jesus pronounces can’t be bought or won or consumed or banked, but is received in poverty of spirit and simplicity of self. If we are stuffed full of whatever—if we are always sated and ever elated—there’s little ground for grace and God.
Most of us here are blessed with shelter, food, community, and faith. But I’ve also had to wonder at my “list” of blessings, which generally does not include being hungry or grieving, or poor or persecuted. However, in hindsight, I can see that I was indeed blessed, and that God was with me during times of crisis, loss and trial. Claiming our own blessedness always leads to a deep desire to bless others (Henri Nouwen), as well as a deep acceptance of the blessedness of others; anymore than we can judge sin, can we judge blessing.
As Christian saints, we are called by our Lord to envision and embody a new humanity —a present-future of “blessed are —for they will be”—in which all division is transcended. There’s the word again: all; a word that’s repeated 43 times in this sermon!
Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes, which I believe is posted on the Christ Church website: Jesus said, “If I be lifted up I will draw all.” All, all, all, all. Black, white, yellow, rich, poor, clever, not so clever, beautiful, not so beautiful. It’s one of the most radical things. All, all, all, all, all, all, all, all. All belong. Gay, lesbian, so-called straight. All, all are meant to be held in this incredible embrace that will not let us go. All.
So Christian, whether or not you want to be a saint, you already are, by the rite of water and Spirit. Daunting, no doubt. But take heart, because as St. Catherine of Sienna said: All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said, “I am the way.”
Every step of the way to heaven is westward; and blessed are the walkers of the way, for they will make it Home. Amen.