Wis 3:1-9; Ps 24; Rev 21: 1- 6a; JOHN 11:32-44
I sing a song of the saints of God, I mean, God helping, to be one too. AMEN
We celebrate All Saints’ Day today, even after All Saints’, and so we think about All Souls’ as well. All Hallows Eve was part of the observance of feast days, by starting the feast at sunset the previous Eve, as we do on Christmas Eve and Easter Eve, which we call a Vigil. Calling that lead-in service Eve, it’d be, Christme’en or would it be Christmaseen or Eastereen—nope, yet we do mark these three major church Holy Days the night before. All Saints in our world is far less observed than its Evening beginning, Hallowe’en, as Christmas is less celebrated liturgically than its Eve. All Souls for us is an extended prayer observance for people, unlike the ones remembered on All Saints, who according to Wikipedia “have attained the beatific vision in Heaven.” Since all Christians are understood to be saints of God, it’s odd that we almost divide people on these two days between famous and common. The church’s distinction is between those in Heaven and those not yet in, but since we don’t hold to a concept of Purgatory or other sort of holding cell or pit, that difference doesn’t make much theological sense.
As we sing the bold music of “For All the Saints” we hear a kind of strident rhetorical largeness, few of us, I think, would hear ourselves, friends, or family included in. Somehow “when the strife is fierce, the warfare long” or “thy soldiers, faithful true, and bold fight as the saints who nobly fought of old” doesn’t seem to apply to many people we know. I think we understand that the poetic language reflects another time’s idiom, so it is the music which really blasts out the triumphalism of our observance, in a way somewhat alien to many of us—but we like the music and maybe more the harmony and the lovely tucked in two verses, the “golden evening,” and the “yet more glorious day.” Even the images of “stars appearing” of “dazzling brightness” “whose hearts were riven sore with woe” don’t sound like people I know. (I confess to hearing some of the dazzling whiteness imagery as either WASP-ily racist or approaching radio ads for cleaner than clean, bleach agents.)
I actually have encountered soldiers, doctors, and priests—not so much shepherdesses, and I’ll omit comment about queens—so these are people we can meet “in schools or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or in trains or in shops or at tea.” Even though these are more familiar categories, I’m not sure my friends and family, or any image I have of myself would include a profile of being “patient, brave, and true who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew.” Again the music tips the scales and renders these people unreal—charming, English, written for children in 1929—but an image I can’t really fit many real people into, however much I enjoy this hymn too.
A collect used at funerals gives me a more useful understanding of the continuity of people from here to therever. "Give us faith to see in death the gate of eternal life, so that in quiet confidence we may continue our course on earth, until, by your call, we are united with those who have gone before; through Jesus Christ our Lord." “Continuing our course to be united with those who have gone before” sounds like a long line of people following along, some on one side of the Jordan, the Great Divide, some on the other. The final phrase, “through Jesus Christ our Lord” which we often hear as—sure—the agency, but “just a formula” is the core, the quintessential Christian affirmation. Here we are saying, affirming, proclaiming even that through Christ’s actions, his agency, we live our lives and then are welcomed into the reality of those who’ve gone before, even way, way, before us. (I add my disclaimer, as I always mean to add it—while this is our Christian hope and belief, we cannot, do not, and must not, comment on heaven for others, either in or out. We believe that through Christ all come along, but I cannot speak either for what others believe or what will occur for them, or for that matter, what will actually occur for or to us, or in what form or substance.) The collect’s simplicity of “in quiet confidence, we may continue our course on earth, until, by your call, we are united with those who have gone before, through Jesus Christ our Lord” heartens me back to “God helping, I mean to be one too.” I just mean to keep on course, and please note, it doesn’t say boldly or even well. There is no option other than to continue on our course, because whatever we do do, that is our course.
Each of the readings, like each hymn, adds a glimpse of something people want to say and believe about those who follow their course. “”Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord, and who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, and have not lifted up their souls unto vanity nor sworn deceitfully.” Clean hands I can do… Maybe this suits more, “having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself.” We often are comfortable with a nurtured leaning towards the idea that maybe life is our discipline or trial for heaven and whatever it is we do, that’s our course, and will count as our testing, and, as long as we are our most authentic self, always working toward being a fuller version of who we “might/could” be (don’t you like this southernism here?), we’ll be worthy of God’s test, by being all we can be… knowing we can’t do, think, feel, imagine, hope or live into all our true potential. We can only be who we can stretch to be.
Jesus said to Martha, and to each of us, “Did I not tell you, that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” We each wonder whether we believe right or well enough, and I don’t believe that’s the means test. If we follow our course, we’ll all see the glory of God when Jesus says for each of us, “Be unbound; you are freed, you are let go.” Jesus exhibited this truth for Martha, not within the three-day period of possible coma or dwindling into death. He waited to show Martha after her brother would stink from corpse rot, and Lazarus came out as he’d been. He’d been dead-dead or way-dead and then he was alive in the familiar and ordinary way, unchanged, real, and back to following Jesus. He was recognizable as himself, but we remember, in what is to come, that Jesus wasn’t always recognized as himself, but he knew his own memories and who he’d been, with his friends, and their memories. It’s a fine image of what saints or regular people will be and become. Lazarus was ordinarily one of us even after he’d died and was called back out of death.
The picture in Revelation of a new heaven and a new earth, where the “home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more…” That’s almost a return to the Garden. The author/poet of this writing longs for a unity with the Holy One, where God is comfortable again with people, and they will be comforted and in the new heaven and new earth, “all things will be made new.” We sense that for humans to provide a setting for God, all things would surely have to be made new. It’s not just a 4-year old Denver girl who just wants the verbal fighting, bickering, and lying to stop. We all want the rhetoric of “outrage”—to use a current phrase—to dry up, be made new, or if not new, at least honest, hopeful, and civil. (DO vote on Tuesday.) Not another flood, but it’ll take something to make all things new.
Yet we do want to be one too. Think in the silent time of your classic saints, your new saints, and all whose course you can identify ways they’re saints too, like you, like us. In an episode of the “West Wing” there was an explosion at a college swim meet, and several of the swimmers died racing back into the explosion to rescue those trapped inside. The President claims these students as saints of God, “The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels tonight. They're our students and our teachers and our parents and our friends. The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels, but every time we think we have measured our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and we're reminded that that capacity may well be limitless. This is a time for American heroes. We will do what is hard. We will achieve what is great. This is a time for American heroes and we reach for the stars.” He doesn’t end, “God help me to be one too,” and yet I think he raises everyone hearing him into that company of saints. I don’t think we hear him as jingoistic; he was the American President and they were kids on an Ohio campus. I hear this as another version of today’s hymns and biblical writings, each, stretching to provide us ordinary people with paths we each, and all, take from time to time to fulfill all we can be, in the eyes of God. “This is a time for American heroes and we reach for the stars. God bless their memory, God bless you.” We’ll all crowd the streets of heaven in our time—somehow: We all mean to be there too: Good News.
© Katharine C. Black 4 Nov. 2012 St John’s Boston