Rev. Yme Woensdregt
Ever since the mid–8th century, the church in the west marks November 1 as All Saints’ Day. It’s a day to celebrate the saints, known and unknown. One of the things we do on this day is to give thanks for the lives of those who have gone before us in the faith.
The practice of marking the death of faithful believers began in the early church. The first few centuries after Jesus’ death was a dangerous time to be a Christian. Christians were commonly persecuted and martyred for their faith. The word martyr comes from a Greek word meaning “witness”. These early martyrs were killed for their witness to the deep truth they knew in God.
As a result, it became common practice to commemorate a martyr on the date of his or her death. Our tradition is to honour a person every year on their birthday. The early church remembered and offered special prayers for martyrs on the date of their death, because that was their “birthday into glory”.
As the number of martyrs grew steadily each year, a crisis arose. It did not take long before every date in the calendar was assigned to commemorate a martyr.
The solution was to designate one day every year as kind of an omnibus occasion, a day to commemorate all the saints who have died in the faith. Various dates were suggested, and the Western church finally settled on November 1.
On All Saints’ Day, we remember all those people who have died in the past year. The focus is less on great historic personages, and more on the ordinary saints who surround us, people whom we have known, and who have helped us in our own journey of faithfulness in Christ.
But that’s not the only thing we do on All Saints’ Day. We also celebrate the life of living saints. The word “saint” comes from the Greek word for “holy”. What makes us holy is not so much our great virtue. What makes us holy is our relationship with God. To be a saint is not so much a result of our own efforts. It is a gift of grace. God sets us apart, makes us holy, saints us. This gift is given in order that we might love God and love God’s world.
On the basis of that understanding, let me tell you that you can be free to call me St. Yme.
All Saints’ Day affirms the reality of God’s presence in the world. Saints are people in whom God’s love shines into our lives. A church in Regina was called All Saints Church. Their motto was, “We are All Saints!” They understood that God was at work in their lives. Their purpose was to share God’s power and love with all the world. They tried to make All Saints’ Day a living reality.
In 1929, Lesbia Scott wrote a poem for her children. It became a hymn for All Saints’ Day. The first verse reads, “I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true, who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew. And one was a doctor, and one was a queen, and one was a shepherdess on the green; they were all of them saints of God, and I mean, God helping, to be one too.”
A saint, said 19th century Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard, is someone whose life manages to be “a cranny through which the infinite peeps”. The early 20th century novelist Laurence Housman wrote that “a saint is someone who makes goodness attractive.”
When we celebrate this day, when we honour those who have gone before us in the faith, we hear again the call to live a life of goodness and beauty for ourselves.
A second feature of this day is that it celebrates the unity of the church not just across geographical lines, but also throughout time. G.K. Chesterton is said to have observed, “If you want to know the size of the church, you have to count tombstones.”
On this day, we celebrate God’s resurrection grace in all of God’s people. We celebrate our hope that death is indeed not the final word. God’s love is always the final word, and it is a word of grace, a word of hope.
One of the values of this day for me is that in North America, we generally shun any talk of death. It’s just too negative. Douglas Hall, a theologian at McGill, has dubbed North America “the officially optimistic society”. In everything we do, we work hard to “eliminate the negative and accentuate the positive”.
A whole funeral industry has arisen because we have chosen not to deal with death any more than we have to. Our funeral preparations are now handled by professionals who do all the work for us. Undertakers prepare the body and bury it. City employees usually dig the graves. Factories build enormous and enormously expensive coffins. Caterers prepare the food. Gone are the days when families would gather to care for the body of the deceased one last time. I am sad to note that it is becoming increasingly common not to have a funeral service at all.
All Saints’ Day reminds us that death is part of life. Life and death are inextricably intertwined. Life is full of sorrow as well of joy, or tribulation as surely as triumph. Karen Blixen–Finecke once observed that “all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.”
All Saints’ Day helps us to tell the stories of those who have gone before us. They have finished their pilgrimage, and bear testimony to us who are left that God is faithful and loving, welcoming all people home.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican