November 1st is the Feast of All Saints. It is a day to celebrate those who no longer walk this earth but who are still very much alive in our hearts, our memories, and, most of all, in the life of God. We pray for the saints on earth and on heaven.
In some traditions, All Saints’ Day is a time to remember those Christians whose lives demonstrated such devotion to God, love of others, and surrender to the promptings of the Holy Spirit that the Church holds them up as examples of a holy life. As a complement to All Saints’ Day, such traditions often celebrate the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed (or All Souls’ Day) on November 2nd – a day to remember and honor all those faithful, “ordinary” Christians whose lives are a more obvious mixture of starts and stops, touchdowns and fumbles, focused goals and distracted wanderings.
As an Episcopalian, the roots of my faith lie firmly in both the Catholic and Reformed traditions. On the issue of honoring the dead, though, I lean in the direction of my Reformed ancestors, those who in the 16th century shaved All Souls’ Day from the liturgical calendar on the grounds that any distinction between saints and souls seems to downplay the role of grace in our attempts to live faithfully. Besides, the Christian scriptures call all those who follow Jesus simply “saints.”
Be that as it may, saints – both in the more formal, traditional use of the word and in the more universal sense – play an essential role in the lives of many “ordinary” Christians like me. Memories of the saints stir our imagination. As we call to mind the ways we have experienced the love, openness, and grace of God in the lives of others, our thoughts turn to our own lives. How does Christ become incarnate today in and through us? In what we do and say and love and desire? In the things for which we work and strive and hope? This is where imagination comes in…
We don’t remember the saints in order to become carbon copies of one saint or another. The saints give us examples of how Christ is made real in the world in the lives of his followers, but no two saints have ever lived the gospel in quite the same way. This multiplicity of Christ-shaped lives demands that each one of us work out our own sainthood, that we work out (in the words of Paul) our “own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).
In a world that thrives on competition and comparison, what a fresh wind it is that encourages us to look at our life in all its singularity and finitude, and then to imagine how it can be a unique channel for God’s love in our own day. All Saints’ Day is not just about looking back, and it’s not just about some day in the future when all will gather in the New Jerusalem. All Saints’ Day is about creating the present, fashioning the kingdom of heaven in the here and now.
On this All Saints’ Day, let the memories of all the saints (those living and dead, those known to many and those known only to a few) ignite our imagination and encourage us in our own journeys of faith. Let them confront us with this ever-present question: What might it look like to live the good news of God’s love in my life?