A Sermon on John 5:24-27
This evening we are commemorating All Souls Day (which technically alls on November 2) , all Hallow’s Eve, which we all know is on October 31, and, I suppose, because they are so closely linked, we might as well throw in All Saints Day, which technically is November 1, or, as we call it Tuesday.
Let no one say that we at St. Barts fear to embrace the concept of a “Movable Feast.” But there’s a logic to it, you know.
We’re celebrating these special days of remembrance early so that we can share them together. We hope that this commemoration can be a loving celebration of all those who have gone before us, and wee can honor those we have loved and lost, especially those who have died in this last year, but also those lost in other times, whom we still miss, and even mourn. Because grief has its own time table, and so does healing.
None of these days, not even All Saint’s Day, stands alone; they are all part of a tryptich of three principal days, celebrated over an eight day period, traditionally called an octave.
Because we are celebrating the climactic day of the three, we are in a sense covering all three principal days of Allhallowtide this evening. Those days are All Hallow’s Eve, which normally falls on October 31, All Saint’s Day, which takes place on November first, and All Soul’s Day, which is normally celebrated on November 2. So it’s a bit like the short story “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury, except without the guilt or the tragic ending.
Now, being able to commemorate these three days together as a congregation doesn’t stop us from celebrating them as each day comes upon us. It’s just gives us the chance to mark the days by sharing with each other our love in prayer and memory for those we can no longer see in this life and for the saints who have gone before us.
The Roman Catholic Church abolished All Hallowtide in 1955. But an Anglican tradition of Allhallowtide has remained, mostly in the United Kingdom, and even here in the United States. Our fellow Episcopalians at St. Thomas, in Dallas, Texas, remind us that the evening of Oct. 31 is to All Saint’s Day as Christmas Eve is to Christmas Day.
But our Book of Occasional Services provides a form for a service on All Hallows’ Eve, or, let’s just call it by the name most people use, Halloween. This service begins with the Prayer for Light, and includes two or more readings from scripture, the Witch of Endor (1 Sam 28:3-25), the Vision of Eliphaz the Temanite (Job 4:12-21), the Valley of Dry Bones (Ez37;1-14), and the War in Heaven (Rv 12:[1-6]7-12). (pp. 112-114).
The readings are followed by a psalm, canticle, or hymn, and a prayer.
The prayer provided by the Book of Occasional Services is direct, reading simply, “O most merciful and mighty God, your son Jesus Christ was born of the Blessed Virgin Mary to bring us salvation and to establish your kingdom on earth: Grant that Michael and all your angels may defend your people against Satan and every evil foe, and that at the last we may come to that heavenly country where your saints forever sing your praise; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
The Book of Occasional Services notes that “suitable festivities and entertainments” may precede or follow the service, and there may be a visit to a cemetery or burial place. Now, as someone who watched the original film, “The Wicker Man” as a boy, I’m not sure I approve of “suitable festivals and entertainments” either before or after the service.
Halloween was originally the eve of Samhain, a pagan Celtic celebration of the beginning of winter and the first day of the new year. The ingathering of the harvest and the approach of winter apparently provided a reminder of human mortality. It was a time when the souls of the dead were said to return to their homes. Bonfires were set on hilltops to frighten away evil spirits. Samhain was a popular festival at the time when the British Isles were converted to Christianity. The church “adapted” this time holday for Christian use by creating the Triduum of All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Soul’s Day.
Last year, on a sermon preached on Halloween itself, I suggested that the holiday provided a means of dealing with the fear of death, and with loss. I referenced Sam Potaro’s book, Brightest and Best: A Companion to the Lesser Feats and Fasts (Cowley Press, 1998), p. 199. Potaro views All Hallow’s Eve as traditionally using “the most powerful weapon in the human arsenal, the power of humor and ridicule, to confront the power of death.” It gives us an opportunity to confront our fear of our mortality, and to embrace life while acknowledging death.
It’s been said that All Saints Day is an inversion of Halloween, its magnificent, triumphant music, the white and gold everywhere, the vestments stoles, the altar cloths. And yes, that’s true. All Saints Day is at a minimum a figurative journey from the dark into the light.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus goes further than that. He tells us that “those who hear his word, and believe He who sent [Jesus]” have eternal life and have “passed from death to life.” He even tells us that “the hour is coming and is now here when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” The Roman Catholic Church might call this passage a mystery—we know that believers die, we all know fully committed believers who have died. So what is the comfort we can draw from this passage?
The Neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus wrote that “Nothing that truly is can ever die.” William Ralph Inge, the Anglican clergyman who adapted Plotinus’s philosophy to ground Christian mysticism, embraced this teaching, and found in it an application of Jesus’s teachings: that our unique souls, created by God, would never die, that only the physical husk left behind would. The late Robertson Davies, the Canadian academic, novelist, and playwright, called this the “perennial philosophy.”
As to All Saints Day, itself I’ve had a quiet epiphany. The word saints is often used to denote only those saints who demonstrated “heroic virtue,” such as martyrs, visible leaders of the Church, and those to whom miracles are attributed.
Nadia Bolz-Weber, the Lutheran Pastor, has cast the day in a different mode, one that I think fits the scope of sainthood. As she wrote in a 2013 sermon:
What we celebrate when we celebrate All Saints is not the superhuman faith and power of a select few but is God’s ability to use flawed people to do divine things. We celebrate all on whom God has acted in baptism, sealing them, as Ephesians says, with the mark of the promised Holy Spirit. We celebrate the fact that God creates faith in God’s people, and those people through ordinary acts of love, bring the Kingdom of Heaven closer to Earth. We celebrate that we have, in all who’ve gone before us, what St Paul calls such a great cloud of witnesses and that the faithful departed are as much the body of Christ as we are.
In her book, Accidental Saints, Bolz-Weber points out that sometimes the people we don’t want to engage with are the very saints we need. The ones who help us when we don’t expect them to, but when we need it direly.
That certainly was true of me a little over 25 years ago. I’d lost my job, commiserated with a friend, and, well, drank myself into a state where I passed out on the PATH train. I woke up the next morning feeling truly horrible, and, as the day drew on, I put on my clothes and skulked out of the hospital. As I headed toward my apartment, a large, muscled man ran up to me. He told me he had just gotten out of prison that day, and that he hadn’t done anything good in a very long time. He asked to walk me home. I agreed, afraid that he intended to mug me. He walked me to my door, shook my hand, and thanked me. He disappeared in the darkening evening, my very own accidental saint. I never saw him again, but I’ll never forget him. So in celebrating this All Saint’s Day next Sunday, I will hold him, and all of our accidental saints, in my heart.
Keep your eyes and your hearts open for them.