Today, the Universal Church will be gathering to commemorate All Saints Day. This is the yearly remembrance of those who have gone before us, and it is a time for remembering and celebration of those lives and what they have meant to us.
It isn’t easy to trace the origins of this feast, but many would agree that the celebration started around the 5th century in Italy and grew. Before the Reformation, this feast focused on those saints declared such by the Church. These were men and women that, through a long process, were named saints and given a particular day on which the Church recognized them. Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglicans still follow this practice today.
All Saints Day survived the Reformation period and was celebrated in many Anglican and Lutheran Churches in Europe. However, for many Reformation Churches, of which we are one, transformed this day for not only those men and women declared saints by the Church but for all of those who have gone before us as we would consider all believers as saints and therefore worthy of remembrance.
There is often confusion about reverence for saints. Christians do not worship saints but rather use saints, and their images, as a way to help them focus their prayers. People will often ask saints to intervene, much like we would invite friends and others to pray for us. I guess some would call this worship, but I do not. Asking for prayers is a very normal request, so why would this not extend those on the other side.
So how does one become a saint? I would typically say that first, one must die, but there are living saints as well. Mother Theresa, for example. I would say that she was a living saint for all the work that she did in India and around the world. The Roman Catholic Church has officially declared her a saint, but she was revered long before she died. In my way of thinking, saints are those who do the will of God and, if you have heard me for any length of time, you know what that is; love God, love neighbor, care for the poor, and those less fortunate.
We need more saints in our world today!
I also want to speak for a minute about grief and loss. Many of you have lost loved ones this past year and have been experiencing the grief associated with that loss. But we have all experienced a loss that most of the time goes unrecognized. Our lives have been radically different since this pandemic began some seven months ago. We have not been able to gather completely as a community for worship and fellowship. Easter Services were canceled, and it looks like the same will happen with Christmas Services.
We are heading into the season when we would typically gather with family and friends and, although we might be able to gather in smaller numbers than usual, things will not be the same. This is a loss as painful as the loss of a loved one. It would help if you allowed yourself to grieve this loss. Talk to each other about it. Support those struggling with this grief or with those who are unsure of how to express this grief. We have all experienced this loss, not only of the more than 200,000 who have died because of this pandemic but because of what we have all lost. Take time to grieve; it’s okay.
Let us now turn our attention toward the Scripture passage from Hebrews, specifically the first verse “since we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses” and what I believe this means.
What does it mean to be surrounded by a cloud of witnesses in relation to All Saints Day?
I have spoken before about the Celtic idea of the think places. These are places where the distance between this world and the next is very thin. Some say that the Isle of Iona off Scotland’s coast is a thin place as well as the Island of Lindisfarne off England’s coast. Historically these were places of pilgrimage and attracted hundreds if not thousands of people each year.
Thin places are those places where we encounter God not in some far-off sort of way but in a real, personal, intimate way. The Celtic Christians were deeply connected to the natural world and believed that every aspect of life was infused with the divine. Historically the Celts believed that thin places were locations like I have just mentioned or times of the year when the veil that separates the world and the spiritual realm diminished, and we could encounter those gone before us. Today there is a belief that these thin places are becoming more common or that we are becoming more aware of them.
After my father died, my brothers and I began the process of cleaning out the house. This was not an easy task, as any of you who have done this well know. Each weekend we would all come together and tackle a little bit at a time. In the basement of the house was my father’s workshop. My father and I spent many hours there, working on projects and spending time together. One Saturday, while I was packing up the last of the tools, I felt relatively low, this was the only house I had ever really lived in, and my connection was ending. While packing up the tools, I felt a presence in the room with me, and I felt a hand on my shoulder as if to say it will be okay. For me, that was a thin place.
Many of us grew up with the image of heaven being on some far-off cloud where everyone dressed in white and sat around all day playing the harp. Now I am not saying that is a bad thing, just not very realistic. The experience I just shared from the basement and many others prove that those who have gone before us are not all that far away. For me, they are here with us just in another dimension, we interact with them, but we cannot see them. So, we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses.
I find great comfort in knowing that those who have gone before me are still here with me and not on some far-off cloud somewhere. I find it reassuring that at times I can feel their presence through a word, a song, thought, or other time in my life. It helps me to know that I am not alone and that there are physically not present with me; spiritually, they are here.
Today as we think about those gone before us, be open to the idea that they are here, right here with us, and find some comfort in the fact.