Tonight we’re marking All Saints’ day, a major feast on the Christian calendar established in the 8th Century to call people to remember and celebrate the lives of those who have gone before us in faith. As I’ve tried to emphasize every year, it is not meant to be narrowly about those big league stained glass figures who over the centuries were given the designation of upper-case “S” saint, but rather all of the saints, known and unknown, from whom we have inherited this faith.
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When you hear these words of Jesus from the Gospel according to Luke, it might be tempting to think, “Well, you’d have to be some kind of saint to live into that.” His blessings for the poor, the hungry, those who weep, and those who are rejected—with their corresponding warnings to those who are already rich, full, without any sorrow, and of whom people can only speak well—are challenging enough on their own. But when he adds these words about loving enemies, blessing those who curse you, turning the other cheek, and giving to all who ask… who but a saint could pull off all of that?
But then you need to stop and recall the way in which Paul used the word “saint” in his letters. He’s not thinking in terms of spiritual super-heroes, who’ve managed to rise to the admittedly challenging teachings of Jesus. No, in Paul’s view the “saints” are those who have been united with Christ; simply put, they are members of the Body of Christ, named saints or “holy ones” in spite of their failings and struggles. And yet together, as members of one body united in and through Christ, the challenges Jesus offers to his hearers become something we can at least wrestle with and begin to practice, however haltingly.
And on this day, we are invited to be mindful of the fact that this Body of Christ—this communion of saints—is something we share with all those who have gone before us. That includes the people who have made an indelible mark on the story of the church, some of whom may have even made their way into stained glass. Characters from the bible, theological visionaries and reformers, composers and poets, prophetic truth-tellers and daringly transformational leaders. But it also includes those whose names have been long forgotten, and whose greatest mark was to pass on their faith to we who follow.
When Christianity first began to be proclaimed in the land of the Celts—in what is now Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, and Northern England—it encountered a very different understanding of the dead. In those lands October 31 was marked as the night of Samhain (sah-win), their god of the dead. It was on that night that the line between the land of the living and the land of the dead was believed to thin, such that the spirits of those who had died during the past year could be carried across. That “thinning” was also thought to mean that restless souls and dangerous spirits could cross back into this world, and so the night was one of considerable fear. In order to ward off these spirits, torches were lit around fields to create the illusion of daylight. In Scotland turnips were hollowed out, carved with frightening faces, and lit with candles in an attempt to scare off the evil. In many places people dressed in costumes and went door to door to collect food to offer at the graves of the dead. And while some of these practices may sound familiar, they were deadly serious…
“You fear the dead?” these Christians asked. “There’s no need for that; in fact we celebrate and revere our dead, our saints, our holy ones.” And because the church was already developing a tradition not unlike All Saints day, gradually the night of fear called Samhain was claimed—redeemed—as the Eve of All Saints, or All Hallows’ Eve. Many of the rituals remained, though now they were given over to families and carried out in a spirit of celebration, with the food gathered often given to the poor. Right through the Middle Ages it was common for children and poor people to go door to door on All Hallows’ Eve, collecting what were called “soul cakes;” small round cakes, made with nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and currants, and marked with a cross. Though some superstitions surely persisted, these lands were freed from a fear of the dead.
Maybe it is a freedom from that fear—and of a fear of death itself—that is our greatest proclamation. Listen again to what Paul wrote in his epistle to the Ephesians:
God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Ephesians 1:20-23)
“God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead,” Paul writes. Not by imprinting him on the hearts of the disciples in a merely spiritual experience, as some biblical scholars have suggested, but by breaking the very hold of death. And because of this, Jesus has “all things under his feet” and is “head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” Did you hear that? We, as members of his body, have been incorporated already into “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” As Paul proclaims in his epistle to the Romans, not even death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Because death simply will not have the final word.
When Malcolm Guite preached here in late September, he spoke of the death of the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney, but I think the story bears repeating on this night. Heaney had gone to the hospital for what seemed at first a relatively routine matter, but it quickly became apparent that it was not routine, and that he was in fact dying. Because everyone had assumed his hospital visit wasn’t a particularly big deal, he’d been left there on his own. Unable to contact his wife by telephone, one of the greatest poets of the last hundred years texted the message that was to be his last communication with her… in Latin no less. Noli timere. “Be not afraid.” Don’t fear my death, and don’t fear your own, Heaney seemed to be saying to his wife. Noli timere. It is that great line of angels, spoken at the beginning of the gospel story to Zachariah, to Mary, and to Joseph, and again at the end to the women at the empty tomb. It was also a word spoken by Jesus several times to his disciples, when their knees begin to buckle in fear.
And it is a message spoken to us. Noli timere. “Be not afraid.” When the challenge of the Gospel to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, and turn the other cheek overwhelms us with its demands, Noli timere.
When the night seems too long, perhaps filled with dreams that haunt us, perhaps simply with a haunting loneliness, Noli timere.
When we remember those who have gone before us and who have now died, Noli timere.
When death draws close to someone we love, or when the truth of our own morality lies close before us, Noli timere. Be not afraid. For the power of death has been shattered, and will not have the final word. Our lives and our deaths are held safe in the death of Jesus.
Noli timere. Be not afraid. Amen.