On 1st November, All Saints’ Day, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 24:1-6, Revelation 21:1-6, John 11:32-44.
Today we are just about in the middle of Allhallowstide (at least those of us who are far enough east not to have moved into Monday!). All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day form a three-day observance in the life of the church when the focus tends to be on those who have died.
It’s likely that All Saints’ Day began in the seventh century when Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon in Rome to the Virgin Mary and all martyrs on 13th May. He ordered the day to be observed every year as a celebration for the martyrs, saints and heroes of the faith. This was the final day of Lemuralia, an ancient festival when Romans sought to exorcise ghosts from their homes. Pope Gregory moved the day to 1st November, another day already associated with the dead by the Celts who celebrated Samhain at this time.
31st October is Halloween, enjoyed now by young people who like to dress up and knock on doors to ask for sweets. Its name is a contraction of All Hallows’ Eve. In common with other special festivals of the church, it was usual to begin the observance in the evening in line with Jewish practice of beginning a new day at sunset. It became a tradition to have a vigil in the evening before significant festivals such as Christmas, Easter and All Saints’ Day.
All Souls’ Day on 2nd November began in the 11th century at Cluny as a day of intercession for Christians who had died. Its observance spread until the 13th century, by which time it was kept throughout the western church. It is the day when we recall our loved ones who have died, many of whom have had a great influence on our lives even if they are not famous as many saints in the church calendar are.
So today, All Saints’ Day, has a long history in the church and sits in the middle of a mini-season in the Church Year. Like many things in the Church, there is tradition attached to it. However, tradition is surely not a good enough reason in itself to do anything. There has to be some value in what we do as a church, something that helps Christians today in their walk of faith.
I think one place to find the answer is in the words of the hymn “For all the saints” which many Anglican churches use on All Saints’ Day. This was written by William Walsham How who was Bishop of Wakefield, my home city, from 1889 to 1897. He himself was something of a saintly man, being known for his work with the poor and with industrial workers. He has left us a wonderfully uplifting hymn https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1OaBgaMcOvM His original version has eleven verses but I’ve never heard them all sung anywhere.
The first verse begins:
“For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed.”
This makes it clear that we are remembering those whom the church would call saints from the past, those who have laboured to spread the word about Jesus around the world. These are people who have lived the Christian life before us and can be examples to us. This is very much in line with Pope Boniface’s intention when this observance began.
Verse 2 says:
“Thou wast their rock, their fortress and their might;
Thou, Lord, their captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.”
Here we remember that being a Christian is not an easy calling. It is a fight against forces that would do their best to eliminate all mention of Jesus, something those who arranged for his death had hoped to achieve. You only have to read about the lives of some saints to understand the reality of this. But all is not doom and gloom. We are reminded that Jesus is there at the head of his faithful band of followers. When all seems dark and difficult he is a shining light, totally to be relied upon, never to be extinguished. As St John affirms at the beginning of his gospel: “the darkness has not overcome it”.
Verse 3 expands the scope of All Saints’ Day:
“O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
All are one in Thee, for all are Thine.”
Here we find the idea of the Communion of Saints, which includes each of us. This is the community of believers, a unity because all belong to the same God. It includes those who have died and those who are still alive. It means those we can see and those who live elsewhere. For those of us who meet together to worship and pray on Epiphany Island, I think a common experience is to become more strongly aware of the fact that we belong to a worldwide body of believers. We pray together, we rejoice together, we weep together, because we belong together. The Communion of Saints embraces all Christians, past, present and future wherever they may be: heaven, earth, Second Life. Once again we see hope within difficulties. Though we may struggle in our lives of faith our struggle is not peculiar to us and we know that there is a glorious future for all believers. There is a challenge here to consider how we can do as those in the past did, and pass on the faith to those members of the Communion of Saints who belong to a future time. Perhaps they are only young now, perhaps not yet born, but we have a responsibility to them.
In the last three verses the hymn turns its attention to the future that faithful Christians will experience. The struggles of life will eventually be over. However, death is not the end. For Lazarus in the gospel, we know that he rose from death at Jesus’ command. Yet he must have died again at some point. However, he died in hope of the resurrection, a hope that Martha shared and that William How portrays:
“But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.
From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
And singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
For Lazarus, for Martha, for saints known and unknown to us, for all who have striven to have a pure heart and clean hands, including ourselves, there is the wonderful hope of joining that countless host as it flows into the heavenly city. God will dwell with his people in the new Jerusalem. Death, sadness and pain will be swept away. Jesus will take up his place on his throne to rule with justice. There will be a feast to surpass all feasts, the heavenly banquet. There we will have a chance to meet with those saints who became famous and those who are only known to a few. I suspect we will get a few surprises when we see who is seated at the table!
All Saints’ Day is not just a tradition for tradition’s sake. It’s a time to remember that we are not alone in our walk of faith. We walk in a path made clear by those who travelled before us. We, together with believers worldwide, help to keep the path well defined for those who will come after us. We are reminded whom we follow and where our final destination lies and so we have hope.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor