I begin my thoughts this morning with a confession, as I prepared this morning’s homily; I found it difficult to figure out what to say. This wonderful and profound feast of All Saints seems to mean different things to different people, making it a challenge to know just where to focus. Today is a day of celebration, as we join together to recognize and give homage to the saints of God. It is also the day in the church calendar that we celebrate our hope in eternal life. As well as a day that we renew our commitment to Christ and discern our place within the company of saints. And it is a day in which we remember those who have been the spiritual guides within our lives.
Finally it is also hard to know where to focus today’s remarks because the American spiritual landscape has shifted greatly over the past few decades. Our angelology, or how we understand the role of angels in this world, has shifted from angels being those who proclaim the glory of God, to entities that somehow protect and guard us from the misfortunes of life. Also , our understanding of what life after death may look like is shifting as cable tv airs programs such as Ghost Hunters and the Long Island Medium. These programs lead us to ask if the realms of life and death, heaven and earth are as truly as segregated as we have been taught.
The challenge this morning has little to do with what is right or wrong, theologically correct or not. The challenge we face this morning is how to acknowledge the myriad of understandings of what today’s feast is about as well my need figure out to where I stand in this ever shifting landscape of American spirituality and the afterlife.
So where do we begin today’s conversation. As always, with scripture, scripture is the best starting place as we seek to understand the wisdom of those who have constructed the lectionary. Both of our New Testament readings this morning, the first from the Book of Revelation and the second from John’s gospel are options for the Rite of Burial. The first shares a description of where God is ultimately leading creation, and the second tells us about the divine power of Jesus. Both accounts points us toward our hope in the resurrection.
In this morning’s Gospel, we again heard the familiar account of the raising of Lazarus. This is the first time we encounter these now famous sisters in the context of John’s gospel.. At this point, we don’t know their history; all we know is what we can glean from the text. Based on this, we can assume there was a history and friendship between Lazarus and Jesus. We can also assume all of the family members were disciples/students of Jesus. In fact, the writer verifies this when Mary acknowledges Jesus and says her brother would not have died had Jesus been there. But, as we continue reading the story, we realize there was a reason for Jesus’ delayed arrival. When Jesus orders the stone of the tomb to be removed, Martha, the ever pragmatic sister, argues; first that there is a stench and second, that Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days. Both of these details attest to fact that Lazarus was truly dead. If Jesus were to raise Lazarus it would be from the deepest realm of death. This was and is a different miracle from the raising of the Centurion’s daughter who had only been dead a short while. In this situation the writer is clear, Lazarus was dead, four days with no signs of life meant he was truly dead, and if that was not enough proof for the audience as to the greatness of this event, the heavy stench of decomposition hung in the air.
Death however, is no challenge for the Son of God. Even death, the writer tells us, heeds to the command of Jesus as Lazarus rises from the cave floor and is unbound from the death shroud he had been wrapped in when prepared for burial.
In the funeral liturgy we proclaim that life is not ended at death, it is merely changed. St. Paul celebrates the hope of resurrection in his words to the Corinthians, ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ 55 ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ 56The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. A part of today is the celebration of that victory.
A second part of today is the acknowledgement that despite the separation of death, through Baptism we are mysteriously connected to all who have gone before us as we too are part of the communion of saints, past, present and future.
In this morning’s reading from Revelation, John of Patmos gives us a glimpse of the realm of God. This passage describes the New Jerusalem, the new earth, where the chasm between heaven and earth is sealed and the throne of the Almighty is restored to this world. In a second passage, John of Patmos provides greater detail of the heavenly city. Here John describes the New Jerusalem as a city where there is no darkness for the light of God permeates every nook and cranny of the city. The New Jerusalem is a place where all those who have washed in the River of Life gather, and, as if one voice, they give praise to God. The New Jerusalem is both a description of what the reign of God will be like once the second coming of Christ has come, and a description of heaven itself. The New Jerusalem is the place where the cloud of witnesses, as our prayer for the week mentions, or the heavenly chorus, as our Eucharistic prayer proclaims, resides.
This second part of what we celebrate today includes our hope and expectation in the world to come. And yet, the heart of our celebration this morning goes beyond Christ’s victory over death and our hope in what is to come. The greater focus of today is some how shrouded in the mystery of how we are dynamically connected with the heavenly realm.
If we are to trust what is becoming popular spirituality, it seems the ability to prove the existence of life beyond the grave and to be able to connect with it, is fast becoming the crux of American spirituality. As I mentioned before, television shows such as Ghost Hunters and the Long Island Medium tend to feed the American hunger to connect with our loved ones who have died and to help us remain in relationship with them. . . even though they reside on the other side of the grave.
While our ancient forbears may not understand our modern fascination with the spiritual realm, our tradition to some degree supports our modern day manifestations. For centuries an integral part of Roman Catholic teaching centered on the intercessions of the saints. During medieval times, many saints were assigned specific causes for which the faithful would specifically pray to. St. Jude the patron saint of many hospitals, is the one to be prayed to for hopeless causes. In fact, while Maureen attended Sienna College, the friar proctoring final exams would begin the exam period by praying to St. Jude on their behalf. Even today, a test for sainthood is to prove a miracle has taken place as a result of intercessions prayed on someone’s behalf.
All of this is to say, yes. . there is room within our tradition for inter-play between this place and the next. And, that there is a mystical bond formed at baptism between us and the saints of past that is deepened through the celebration of the Eucharist. Beyond this, our tradition has very little to say.
What I do know, is later this morning, when we light candles for those who have died, the bonds we shared with them will be renewed, and in some mystical way, we will deepen relationships that have transcended time and place. . . and even death itself, as we celebrate our place in the eternity of all the saints.