All Souls Day — 2 November 2018
Trinity – 12:15 pm
Wisdom 3:1-9 | Psalm 116:10-17 | 1 Corinthians 15:50-58 | John 5:24-27
“The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God.” [Wisdom 3:1]
All Souls Day – or “The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed,” to give its full name – and All Saints Day, which we celebrated yesterday, go very much together. Sometimes we pretty much merge them, and that may be all right – after all, in the New Testament the “saints” – the holy ones, the holy people of God – are all the faithful. But it came to pass that there were special celebrations to remember the martyrs, those who had died as witnesses to their faith in Christ, and then, especially after the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire, when thank God there were no longer as many martyrs, the celebrations were extended to all those who were notable for their holiness and for their mission and service for the Kingdom of God.
But what about the rest of us?
And so in the Middle Ages there developed another observance, on the day following All Saints Day, for the remembrance of the rest of us, those of us who have gone before us out of this world, and with special focus on our own family and friends who have departed this life. And this led to a very clear distinction between All Saints Day and All Souls Day. All Saints is a festival, a solemn feast day, with the best white or gold vestments, and flowers, and glorious music, and for those of us who are into that kind of thing, clouds of incense. It’s all very grand! But then after everyone has gone home, the decorations are all put away and for All Souls Day the altar and the ministers were dressed in funeral black. (I remember when we still wore black for All Souls Day; perhaps some of you do too. For others of you, that sounds like Ancient Times!) Well, we’ve mitigated that gloom a little bit; we’re wearing a simple white now.
See, here’s the thing: On All Saints Day we are rejoicing with all the Holy Ones who are with God in heaven, but we are all sinners, and so things are pretty dicey for us. All Souls Day became a pretty grim business. “Dies irae, dies illa, solvet saeculum in favilla…” It got to the point where we thought that if we didn’t get down to some really serious praying and pleading, poor Grandpa might be in serious doodoo. (Sometimes folks were even encouraged to bribe God for Grandpa’s salvation by donating money, for example for the St. Peter’s Basilica Construction Fund, which is one reason why we got the Protestant Reformation.)
That isn’t what we want to do, is it? No!
A little transparency would help. The saints whom we celebrated yesterday were perhaps not so very different from us after all. St. Jerome, one of the Latin Doctors (that is, Teachers) of the Church, the translator of the Latin Bible and an important theologian, was also a notorious grouch. St. John Chrysostom, the great “golden-mouthed” preacher and one of the Greek Doctors of the Church, was notably anti-Semitic. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a great monastic reformer and spiritual leader in medieval Europe, preached the Second Crusade. (Good move, Bernie.) These folks all loved God, tried very hard to follow Jesus, but they weren’t perfect. We also aren’t perfect, but I hope we all love God and try very hard to follow Jesus. And so maybe All Saints and All Souls aren’t all that much different. As Lesbia Scott told us in her hymn last night, “The saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.” [Hymn 293]
Okay, so what are we to say about the saints – both the capital-S Saints from yesterday and the small-s saints we remember today? Where are they?
I don’t know.
Mind you, I am not saying, “Gee, I dunno!”
I’m saying, I don’t know. We don’t know.
Part of what we don’t know is the relationship between our death and departure from this life, and the General Resurrection at the Coming Again of Jesus Christ. In New Testament times, and actually for many hundreds of years thereafter, people had a relatively simple understanding of the world. For many this could be characterized as a three-storied universe. Heaven is up there, earth is here in the middle, and hell is down below. That makes Jesus’ coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and the resurrection of the dead, fairly easy to imagine. We see that, for instance, in the Epistle today, from First Corinthians 15, or in First Thessalonians 4 (which is not about the “Rapture,” about which St. Paul would have said “The what?” but about the general resurrection of the dead at Jesus’ coming again, which Paul thought would happen in the near future, even within his own lifetime). But we understand – not because we are smarter or holier, but because we have more experience – we understand that the universe is an immensely larger and more complicated creation by God than we can even imagine, and so we don’t know how all this works out. (Nor do we need to. We’ll find out when we get there! Jesus calls us to live in and proclaim the Kingdom now and not worry about the whenever.) “Do not worry about tomorrow.…Today’s trouble is enough for today.” [Matt. 7:34]
But although we cannot know, we can trust and believe with confidence this: Jesus on the cross tells the penitent thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” [Luke 23:43] St. Paul, writing to the Philippians probably from prison in Ephesus, where he knew each day might be his last, says, “My desire is to depart and to be with Christ.” [Phil 1:23] And to the Corinthians he writes, “We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” [2 Cor 5:8] And in St. John’s Gospel Jesus himself prays, “Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory.” [John 17:24]
So I have confidence, and you may have confidence, that the Great Saints are, and our own saints are, and in due course you and I will be, with the Lord. And that’s enough.