Saintly Change

Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:34-35, 37-39

The church has always barrowed, especially when it served some larger theological purpose. We borrowed the word “Easter” from the English because it meant “spring.” We borrowed the idea of the bunny at Easter because its prolific procreation had always suggested new life. We moved the date of Christmas to accommodate both to a Roman holiday already being celebrated and the fact that their holiday signaled the overcoming of death with the birth of new life in the form of the returning length of the day’s sun. We added the use of the evergreen tree because Saxons brought them inside over the winter as a promise that life would return despite the dead darkness of winter. In Ireland, the church took the Gaelic sun, representing eternal life, and superimposed it upon a cross implying symbolic synonyms. The Gaelic sun was not the only thing we borrowed from Ireland. We, also, borrowed the idea that at certain places and at certain time the distance between the temporal and the eternal shrinks, the barrier between life and death thins.

The Irish called these special times and places “thin spaces.” They were thin because they were believed them to be specially suited to allow the living to connect with the dead. One such place is the Portal Tomb in the middle of the desolate landscape of the Burren in County Clare, Ireland. The ancient tomb stands prominent against the rocky horizon. Perched like a doorway, the tomb is a burial site that the ancient Irish chose to inter their dead because they felt the site to be sacredly special, marking a unique point across the landscape where the distance between the dead and the living thinned to a translucent film. They buried their loved ones in this thin spot because it meant they could easily access their family and friends after they were gone, regularly communing with them at certain moments of the year when they felt the wall between life and death moved from just being translucent to being transportive. This idea of both thin space and thin times directly influenced the church’s practice of All Saints’ Day.

All Saints’ Day, or All Hallows, is when the church commemorates all our saints. The eve of All Saints’ is known as “All Hallows Even,” or “Halloween.” Each year, All Saints’ Day falls on November 1. All Saints’ Day is set aside in the church year to remember all those “saints” of the church who have died, specifically naming those individuals we know and love who have died since our last All Saints’ Day celebrations.

Christians have been honoring their saints and martyrs since at least the second century C.E. The Martyrdom of Polycarp, probably written near the middle of the second century, attests to this practice. That text reads: “Accordingly, we afterwards took up his bones, more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more pure than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, so that when being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps (18).”

Initially the calendars of saints and martyrs varied from location to location and, often, local churches honored local saints. However, gradually celebration days became universal. The first reference to a general celebration for all the saints occurs in 373 C.E. Early on, John Chrysostom assigned a day for the dead to the first Sunday after Pentecost. The eastern churches still celebrate All Saints’ on that day. In the West, this date was probably originally used, and then the feast was moved to May 13. The current observance of November 1 probably originates from the time of Pope Gregory III and has been linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain or “summer’s end”.

Following the Reformation, in most western Christian traditions, the celebration of All Saints’ Day expanded to include commemorations of all who had died in a given year, mirroring the early church practice of attributing sainthood to all Christians in a community. The vigil of the feast (i.e., the celebration or watch-service on the “eve” before a holiday) has become its own festival. Many customs of Halloween reflect the Christian belief that on the feast’s vigil the church mocks evil because for the church the night serves as a living confession that evil and death have no real, ultimate power over us. In addition, on All Hallows Eve, it was customary for Christians to visit cemeteries to commemorate departed relatives and friends with picnics and the last flowers of the year. Whether All Saints’ is celebrated in the spring or in the autumn or is intended for some or all of the departed, the celebrations of Halloween and All Saints’ reminds us that we live in a world more about light than darkness, more about hope than despair, more about life than death, more about resurrection than the grave. Without All Saints’ Day, the customs and costumes of Halloween lose their potency and significance. Without Halloween, All Saints’ becomes stilted and more solemnity than celebration.

The connections between these ancient practices and the church’s desire to link them to a commemoration of the dead are patent. As with its other borrowings, when a cultural practice already exists that bolsters a larger theological point, the church happily connected its claims with a community’s imbedded practices. In this case, the notion of thin spaces is linked with the church’s conviction in the perpetuating presence of the communion of saints. The communion of saints is the idea that despite physical evidence to the contrary, death cannot ultimately separate us from each other and from God. Paul’s rhetorical flourish from his letter to the Romans springs from this very conviction. There, Paul, proclaims: “Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:34-35, 37-39). This text relies on the theological assumption that the power of the resurrection includes not just Christ’s defeat of his own death but Christ’s ultimate defeat of all death. Further, the power of baptism is meant to signal not just a moment of earthly wetting but, also, a heavenly event of wedding ourselves to an already present and persisting eternity.

All Saints’ Day marks an ecclesiastical “thin space,” where and when heaven links with life. Such a confession of life in the midst of death reminds us of our faith’s conviction that God’s kingdom of heaven is already among us. It is not some distant hope but a present reality. As such, All Saints’ Day is a much a statement about the past lives of our family and friends and our future hope in life eternal but, equally, a statement about the present need to celebrate the living still among us. It is a call to make the thinness of heaven’s touch a persisting reality ever day for those all around us. To that end, it is our calling to remove any thin space that might remain a barrier between our neighbors and their contact with heaven’s full presence.

This is not so much call to evangelical fervor—at least not how we typically us that term—but a call to embody the “good news”—the euangelion—of heaven’s kingdom in our proclamations to the poor, the sick, and the oppressed. After all, Jesus’ ministry began with his making this very claim: “I have come to declare good news to the poor, recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to announce that the time has come to save God’s people.” The good news of the gospel is that the bounty of heaven to be shared by all is not some distant promise but a current reality, made available through our affirmation that we, the church, are meant to be a persisting “thin space,” linking heaven to earth every day. All Saints’ Day is but a seasonal reminder of our regular responsibility.

Recently, I attended a meeting on the issues of poverty and hunger plaguing Towns County. Did you know that in the first ten months of 2010, Towns County Food Pantry has already distributed nearly 50% more food than the Food Pantry did in all of 2009? Did you know that the Ninth District—a local agency responsible for assisting people with housing, heating, and other essential needs—has served over 882 clients in the first ten months of the year in comparison to 710 clients in all of 2009? Did you know that because of various cutbacks they have been forced to serve this greater client pool on roughly half the budget? Regularly, for the first time in years, this agency has begun turning families away because of a lack of funds. How is any of this good news to the poor? How might we convert this news into the good news that we tacitly promise every time we erect a church sign, open our bibles, or sing hymns?

On this All Saints’ Day, may we be reminded that we are called to be a thin space that brings heaven to earth via our not just speaking but enacting good news to the poor. Borne out of this concern, the student leadership from our Inter-religious Council agreed to collect an offering for the Food Pantry and the Ninth District at tonight’s All Saints’ Day service. In our remembering, may we, also, reenact, not just recalling life but enabling it, too.

Join us this evening as we remember the earthly faithfulness of the dead and offer heaven’s help to the living.

Peace.

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