The Reverend Dr. Lillian Daniel
November 4, 2007
First Congregational Church,
Scripture: Psalm 23
The Lord is my shepherd; I
shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his names sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Let me begin with a little history, to tell you something about All Saints Day, which took place this week on Thursday, and about All Saints Sunday, which we celebrate today.
This morning, we’re going to do a little sweep through Christian history where we will begin in the Roman Catholic tradition, but trust me, eventually we will find our way back to Protestantism, our denomination the United Church of Christ, First Congregational Church here in Glen Ellyn and why All Saints Sunday should matter to you today. Are you with me?
All Saints Day began with the early church’s desire to remember and celebrate its martyrs. Martyrs are people who were killed because of their faith, some of them thrown to the lions, some tortured and hanged, all because they refused to bow down to any god or person other than Christ. They were punished for this by the Roman Empire, where worshipping Roman gods was inseparable from Roman political domination, so the Christians were rebelling both religiously and politically, whether they meant to or not. And many were killed as martyrs.
We don’t think much about martyrs these days. We are privileged, and I would say blessed, to live in a country where we have freedom of religion. But the early Christians experienced no such luxury, as many people of faith around the world today do not experience that freedom.
So for the first centuries of the church, Christianity was a religion that could cause you to be persecuted. As our own Jesus was crucified, so many of his early followers lost their lives with more anonymity. So the all Saints feast day originated as a feast of All Martyrs, sometime in the 4th century.
That was, interestingly, around the time that the Roman
Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and embraced Christianity as a
state religion. That meant the end of the persecution, and the beginning of a
more comfortable time for Christians, as well as the
Perhaps looking back on the first four centuries of the religion, the church hoped that in honoring past martyrs, as saints, they would be looking back on an era of pain and toward an era of peace. That is how All Saints Day began, as a day to remember martyrs. But its date has moved all around.
At first it was celebrated on the first Sunday after
Pentecost. It came to be observed on May 13 when Pope St. Boniface IV in the
600’s restored and rebuilt an ancient Roman temple, the Pantheon. Pagan
About a hundred years later, Pope Gregory III consecrated a new chapel in the basilica of St. Peter to all saints (but in this case if was not just to the martyrs but all saints) on November 1, and he fixed the anniversary of this dedication as the date of the feast. This marks a move for the feast away from simply martyrs to include honoring a larger group.
A century after that, Pope Gregory IV (827-844) extended the celebration of All Saints to November 1 for the entire Church. But all along, this was not a feast for one particular saint in the Roman Catholic tradition, rather a day to honor large numbers of saints.
Let’s move briefly into the present. On Wednesday night of this week, I had so many children showing up at my door dressed up as fairies, refrigerators, sumo wrestlers and montsters that I actually ran out of candy. I had bought five bags, and I ran out at about 6:30 pm. You know that’s ugly.
Well, all this relates to All Saints Day. You see, it was from this date, that we get the more famous eve of All Saints Day, eve meaning the night before, so we get All Hallows Eve, or Halloween, as we call it. Halloween is not a recent commercial invention of candy manufacturers, costume sellers and children on a sugar high who secretly rule the world.
No, people think that Halloween was actually observed as early as the All Saints Feast, both of them ancient ways to remember the dead. In my case, this year’s Halloween was less a spiritual enterprise and more a commercial one, as it turned into an unexpected opportunity for my own daughter to make money.
You see not only did she collect so much candy as to lead to her own potential explosion, she got to come home periodically to check on my dwindling stash of treats, and then had the business opportunity to sell her candy to me, her own loving mother, at extortionist prices, which I was willing to pay rather than disappoint the next little princess or sweet little serial killer at my door.
Hard to believe any of this has spiritual origins but it all begins with All Saints Day.
Now, remember, these early church feasts were set by the Roman Catholic church. At that time it was the only church people in the West knew. But then came the Protestant Reformation. And All Saints Day survived for both Catholics and Protestants.
That may surprise you, since you may have heard that
Protestants do not have saints. Well, that’s not true. We do not have saints in
the Roman Catholic sense. We do not believe that certain individuals are
beatified, by a process or by a hierarchy. So as protestants we don’t call
someone like the early church father,
But we do talk about saints. The Protestant tradition, and this should not surprise you, has had a more grass roots understanding of sainthood.
It is not something for a special few, set apart by a hierarchy, but rather for Protestants, historically, sainthood was what all Christians go on to achieve after they’ve lived their lives on earth.
Hence, we have the great hymns of the Protestant church, such as “I Sing A Song of the Saints of God,” in which everybody is a saint, or “For all the Saints,” that harkens back to saints of the past.
So with this wider understanding of sainthood, the All Saints Day festival was retained after the Reformation in the calendar of the Church of England and in many Lutheran churches and other Protestant churches.
In many Protestant Churches, like ours, All Saints Day is moved to the first Sunday of November, always the Sunday after Halloween, which is how we are celebrating it here today, because we all have saints that we want to honor.
Now today, our own United Church of Christ has grown in directions to recognize the validity and the beauty of many religions, other than Christianity. And so to my mind, I like to open up this grassroots Protestant idea of sainthood to include all the faithful, not just those who died as Christians, but a day to remember all the saints who lived well and honored God in their lives. And I would argue that fits in the theological and historical trajectory and is true to the All Saints Day legacy, where we have a wide and ever more generous definition of sainthood. And so today, we look back at the cloud of witnesses who have gone before us and recognize all our saints.
Because deep in every human heart is the need to remember, to honor and to give thanks for those people who have run this race before us.
All around the world, All Saints Day has captured people’s imaginations. In Portugal, Spain and Mexico, ofrendas (offerings) are made on this day. In Belgium, France, Italy, Portugal and Spain people bring flowers to the graves of dead relatives. In Poland, Sweden, Slovenia, Slovakia, Lithuania, Croatia, Austria, Hungary and Germany, the tradition is to light candles and visit deceased relatives at the cemetery. In the Philippines, the day is spent visiting family members’ graves, where they offer prayers, lay flowers, and light candles, often in a picnic-like atmosphere. In all these very different cultures, you can see the similarities of these rituals – so what about us here in the United States?
Well, we adopted the Halloween ritual, and that is what caught our cultural imagination. All Saints Day, if we have heard of it, becomes merely an addendum to the more famous night that precedes it. Halloween is the American focus. So what does that say about us?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against Halloween, with the possible exception of being a victim of extortion at the hands of my own children. No other than that, I love Halloween, for many reasons.
First, anything that causes people to dress up in costumes has got to be a good thing. There is so much pressure in our culture for our young people to conform, that any holiday that allows them to experiment with another identity, to play with stereotypes and turn them on their heads, and to be creative, is a blessing. And I actually even put the scary costumes in this category. I think it’s a way to experiment with the darker side without living it out in real life, something that healthy cultures have done since the beginning of time, an outlet if you will.
But secondly, I adore the fact that on Halloween we open our doors to strangers and give them something. We break open our hermetically sealed lives and welcome the stranger, or even Jason or Freddie Kruger, which is more remarkable. It’s one of the few holidays with religious roots where we actually practice radical hospitality, which means welcoming people we do not know.
It makes me so sad to hear that in some communities trick or treating is falling by the wayside because of fears around crime or foul play. I would never criticize parents who have to restrict their children because they live in a community in which they do not feel safe, but I pray for a world in which all children could knock on stranger’s doors and receive the joy of a warm welcome and a sweet treat.
But that’s Halloween. What happened to All Saints Day in American culture? Culturally, we dropped it
And even in our churches, particularly the Protestant ones, I think we’ve kind of lost this day, and I want to get it back. You know I have a passion for our Christian tradition.
As open-minded and progressive as I want to be, I am also an enthusiastic student of history, and I do not see these as being in conflict with one another.
When I mine the enormous wealth of the Christian tradition, I frequently discover ancient practices and rituals that I want to uncover, dust off and appreciate again in a modern context. And All Saints Day is one of these treasures I want to share with you. Because I think we need it.
Ask any one who has lost a loved one if our culture is hospitable to those who grieve. I think we are not good at grieving or allowing grief to take place.
In the work place, you are lucky to get a little time off. In the social whirl, we don’t really know how to treat one another after that first few weeks or months have passed. Grief becomes the invisible calamity, for we no longer wear black these days. We simply try to move on. We look normal but we are wounded inside.
All Saints Day is a reminder that we never simply move on. Our grief may lessen over time, our grief may change and take a different form, but it is always with us, and that is not a bad thing. It is certainly nothing to be ashamed of.
You see, grief for the dead is the price we pay for loving. Grief for the dead is the cost of living deeply and loving well.
For if we kept to ourselves, and lived in selfish bubbles we would grieve the loss of no one.
But when we live connected to one another, we run the risk of having our hearts broken one day.
Those broken hearts are the cost of having big hearts. And if big hearts lead to broken hearts, I still vote for a world of big hearts. Where we love one another despite the risk, because that’s how Jesus lived and loved in this world.
In the 23rd psalm, God left us a love letter. It is not a letter from one lover to another. It is a letter for those who have loved and lost. It is the message we most long to hear at funerals and times of grief that follow later, be it a year later or ten.
Unlike our culture, that tells the grieving to move on and get over it, the 23rd Psalm acknowledges the dignity and the importance of grief. Just as in the church, the solemnity of All Saints Day makes room for us to be ourselves, and to give thanks for that mighty cloud of witnesses that has gone before.
When we gather around that communion table today, we are going to make a place for them, in a moment of silence and the tolling of the bell. In that time, recall the people who have gone before you, your parents, your grandparents, your friends and your family.
“Sing Me to Heaven,” the anthem that the choir is about to sing is the most beautiful lullaby I have ever heard, for it speaks of singing us not to ordinary sleep but to the sleep of heaven. I first heard it in the weeks before my mother’s death. I was in worship, in a pretty bad way, with that knowledge, intellectually, that at any day or week, she would be gone. But I had no way of imagining emotionally how I would survive such a thing, no way to imagine the other side of what was coming. And in church that Sunday, after the choir sang “Sing Me to Heaven,” I thought that if the choir could sing something that beautiful, I could trust that I would be OK on the other side. That song sang me to heaven, and later, my mother.
So let me say that one of the reasons that we can give thanks for the people we love on All Saints Day is that we are not merely looking backwards, we are looking forward too.
We are looking toward a day when the dead shall be raised and all of us will know one another, those who have gone before and those who have not yet arrived.
This is what I say at funerals and this is what I say to you now. When we are part of a church, my friends, we do not grieve as others do who have no hope.
In a community of faith, when you cannot believe this, that’s OK, let others believe it for you. And when you do believe it, let your faith be a blessing to those who walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
For when we believe and when we have doubts, we are not alone but have each other, to sing us to heaven. We sing each other to heaven.
And those who are already there sing out to us, and sing us to heaven too.
And if remembering the dead makes you miss them all the more, let that be your reminder that you have lived your life so far with a big heart, and not a small one. Amen.