All Saints’ Day
November 1, 2009
St. James’s Episcopal Church
It isn’t very often that All Saints’ Day actually falls on a Sunday. It usually lands in the middle of the week and goes unnoticed, trumped by the sugar and fun of Halloween. Sure, the church always celebrates All Saints’ on the Sunday closest, but for me there is something lost when we miss the day itself. There is something lost because All Saints’ Day directly follows Halloween or All Hallows Eve. Last night we were encouraged to dress up and be someone we aren’t. Today we are encouraged to celebrate the memories of all those good people we should be more like. People who have lived and died and left a legacy worthy of imitation.
The history of these two back to back holidays is rather interesting. For the ancient Celtic people of Northeastern Europe, November 1st was New Year’s Day, and October 31 was the last night of the year.”Celts believed it was the night that spirits, ghosts, fairies and goblins freely walked the earth. Archaeologists aren’t entirely sure what all the traditions were, but they believe the holiday involved bonfires, dressing up in costumes to scare away evil spirits, and offering food and drink to the spirits of family members who had come back to visit the home.
It was Pope Gregory III in the eighth century A.D. who tried to turn Halloween into a Christian holiday to divert Northern Europeans from celebrating an old pagan ritual. He made November 1st All Saints Day, and October 31 became All Hallows Eve. Instead of providing food and drink to the spirits, Christians were encouraged to provide food and drink to the poor. And instead of dressing up like animals and ghosts, Christians were encouraged to dress up like their favorite saints.
In the United States, Puritans tried to outlaw Halloween, in part because of its association with Catholicism. So it was the Irish Catholics who brought Halloween to this country, when they immigrated here in great numbers after the potato famine in the 1840’s. Since the Irish were largely poor and oppressed, Halloween became a holiday for them to let off steam by pulling pranks, hoisting wagons onto barn roofs, releasing cows from their pastures, and committing all kinds of mischief involving outhouses. Treats evolved as a way to bribe the vandals and protect homes.
But by the late 1800’s, Victorian women’s magazines began to offer suggestions for celebrating Halloween in wholesome ways, with barn dancing and apple bobbing. And by the early 20th Century, it became a holiday for children more than adults. In 1920, the Ladies’ Home Journal made the first known reference to children going door to door for candy, and by the 1950’s it was a universal practice in this country. By 1999, 92 percent of America’s children were trick-or-treating.”
In our own parish family, All Saints’ Day is not only the time when we remember the faithful who have died, but we also celebrate the new Saints who have been welcomed into the body of Christ during the past 12 months. Not only do we lift up to God the names of the dead, but during the 9:00 service we parade the banners of the baptized. Moreover, today we will add 7 new names to list of the baptized, seven new saints washed in the waters of baptism and promised that they too, like Lazarus, will one day rise from the dead. Our celebrations this morning are a reminder that Christ stands at our ending and our beginning. Twice we are carried into the church. First, when we are very young we are carried in for baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. Second, when we are (hopefully) very old we are carried in for burial, counted among the saints and commended into the hands of God. In this way, as Christians we know where we come from and we know where we are going. Christ is our Alpha and Omega, our first and last, the source of our life and the promise of our future.
This morning I invite you to think about how a saint is supposed to live between baptism and burial. How are we to be saints after we are baptized and made a part of the body of Christ and before we become one of the saints of history? We don’t have to just look to the usual suspects, the Mother Theresas, the MLK’s, the Desmund Tutus, who seem so far beyond us as our only models of saintly living. As the old hymn proclaims, Saints are all around us. Who are the people who have most influenced your life for good? Who are the people who have taught you the most valuable lessons, or cared for you during the most critical times, or shared themselves with you in ways that helped you to be a better person. These are your saints. If you want to live like a saint then a great place to start is by imitating them. Because saints are those who, know it or not, mediate the goodness of God. Through what they do and how they live they make real God’s love and grace in the world.
When I think about my own saints, I am reminded of my grandmother’s never ending gift of hospitality and love to everyone who came through her door, my grandfather’s patience and understanding, my father’s sense of duty and hard work, my high school chaplain’s honesty, integrity, and acceptance of others. These are but a few of the saints whose lives blessed mine. They are some of the people who formed me, who made me a better person, who loved me and helped me to love myself. Sure, we can make a long list of saintly behaviors, but if you want to live more like a saint, the easiest way is to simply imitate the saints from your own life. Give to others the gifts that your saints gave to you.
It think that Christianity is like a great spider web that stretches across 2000 years of history, a web that transcends past, present and future. You and I are each strands in this great web. As such we are connected together with the likes of Mary and Martha, Luke and Lazarus, Peter and Paul. Therefore, as we move through life let us never forget that the love we share, the forgiveness we show, the compassion we offer the people we meet sets that spider web trembling. For the lives we touch in the name of Christ will touch other lives, and those in turn will touch others, until who knows where the trembling stops or in what far place Christ love will be known.
Let us pray. For all your saints, we give thanks O Christ. For those who brought us into this world and taught us how to live here. For those who told us the gospel story and lived that story before us as our examples. For wise folk in the church who embodied for us the shape of this faith. For those foolish folk in the church who showed us how easy it is to wander from the paths of righteousness. For those dear, departed souls for whom we still grieve, those whom we hope to meet another day, on another shore. For all the saints we thank you. Amen.