For as long as I have been a pastor, I have loved All Saints Day. In some years, I have made the time to walk through a local cemetery — returning to those places I have frequented in the months past. Other years, time just gets away from me or the weather doesn’t cooperate and I simply find myself recalling those who have gone before us. Indeed, I have found the ritual of naming in worship and lighting candles in memory of those who have died — especially in the past year, but also countless others — to be a simple but important way to mark our grief and to measure our healing.
I have always loved All Saints Day. Only it feels different at 54 than it did at 27 when I first was called to lead God’s people on this day. For those saints whom I have known and loved and said good-bye to are growing in number: both those who have shaped me in powerful ways from the start and those I have been called to walk alongside in recent years. Simply put, the losses are piling on. The grief is more complicated, more nuanced, more textured than it was when I first began.
Having said that, when we gather as a congregation next Sunday, we will remember but six this time around. Of them, two lived past the century mark and one was in his nineties. Though small in number, each and all of them touched me in profound ways:
- Kim, who on the day we met, welcomed me into her hospital room with a wide smile and a kind spirit. She taught me about courage and about hope. I miss her open heart.
- Rodney — who never moved far from the farm he grew up on and who loved to fly. Only he loved his family more and gave it up when the kids came along…
- Keith — whose quiet presence is missed by our staff every day for he was one of those who with patience and wisdom looked after the well-being of our church building ….
- Al — who was as likely as not to have a copy of something he thought was interesting or funny in his hand when he went to shake mine on Sunday mornings — but who made a lasting impression on me when his lower plate of false teeth fell out of his pocket on one of my first Sundays here, only to be discovered by the custodian. (Apparently they were not fitting comfortably that day!)
- Ruth — whose beautiful soprano voice rang clear and true right up until the last year of her life in the nursing home…
- Mary — whose great grandchild made the sign of the cross on her forehead the day we shared in the Commendation of the Dying. That same young man will carry the candle into worship in her memory this All Saints Day.
These precious ones were not ‘my people’ even four years ago, but now they are and will always hold a place in my memory. Certainly the brief sentences above do not begin to capture who they were in the hearts of those who loved them — and certainly not in the heart of God. Even so, as I say their names I remember them in moments of joy and struggle both and I am grateful that for them it is now only all joy. And I realize anew the profound diversity and depth of the people God calls and how the growing number I have come to know and love are but a tiny fraction of the multitudes whom God has gathered home.
I have always loved All Saints Day, only it holds a deeper meaning now as I hold closer the memories of so many more. And yes, for some reason, it is so that I come to this November 1st with the grief feeling a little heavier, the shroud a little closer than it sometimes does. Perhaps this is why this season these deaths we grieve and so many others have me tasting my own mortality a bit more than was true a season ago.
So I have to say that I am especially grateful for the promise of God through the prophet Isaiah that the day will come when the shroud will be destroyed for we will no longer have need of it. And oh yes, I am so very grateful for the image of Lazarus emerging from the tomb — a foreshadowing, to be confident that we will one day be “unbound” from all the ways that death obliterates life. Indeed, All Saints Day is a precious day when we can celebrate the Easter Promise with certain dear ones in mind. It is a day, for me, when Easter has a face — or, actually, many faces. And this year, I find myself especially grateful for this.
- Who are those whose memories make All Saints Day especially meaningful for you this year? How do you remember them?
- We celebrate the Resurrection every Sunday, of course. However, does it make sense to you that All Saints Day is a particularly ‘personal’ Easter celebration? Why ore why not?