All Saints Day Reflections: Upon the Anniversary of Mom’s Illness

O blest communion, fellowship divine!

We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;

yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.

“For All the Saints”, William How

Today is the day which the church since the third century has come to know as All Saints Day. It is a day that roots us in our historic faith, and it is a day of homecoming in which we celebrate relationships that never end in Jesus Christ.

Since the Middle Ages, All Saints Day and All Souls Day came to be celebrated as one event, though technically they were different. On All Saints, we remember the saints and aspire to their sainthood. On All Souls, we remember the dead and pray for our continuing relationship with their memory. In both events, we are reminded starkly of the reality of death. In both events, we also are reminded starkly of the failure of any force, including death, to sever our communion with each other. Whether living or dying, we are surrounded by a great company of saints.
We may feel strange about honoring anyone as a saint. Barbara Brown Taylor writes about this day this way, and I find it helpful:

What makes a saint? Extravagance. Excessive love, flagrant mercy, radical affection, exorbitant charity, immoderate faith, intemperate hope, inordinate love. None of which is an achievement, a badge to be earned or a trophy to be sought; all are secondary by-products of the one thing that truly makes a saint, which is the love of God, which is membership in the body of Christ, which is what all of us, living and dead, remembered and forgotten, great souls and small, have in common. Some of us may do more with that love than others and may find ourselves able to reflect it in a way that causes others to call us saints, but the title is one that has been given to us all by virtue of our baptisms. The moment we rose dripping from the holy water we joined the communion of saints, and we cannot go back any more than we can give back our names or the blood in our veins.

So All Saints’ Day is a family reunion indeed, of a clan made kin by Christ’s blood. There are heroes and scoundrels at the party, beloved aunts and estranged cousins, relatives we adore and those who plainly baffle us. They are all ours, and we are all included. On All Saints’ Day we worship amidst a great fluttering of wings, with the whole host of heaven crowding the air above our heads. Matthew is there, and Thomas, Barnabas, and the Virgin Mary. Teresa is there, along with Ignatius, Pius, and Columba, plus all those whom we have loved and lost during the year: Hank, Dorothy, Margaret, Al. Call their names and hear them answer, “Present.” On All Saints Day they belong to us and we to them, and as their ranks swell, so do the possibilities that open up in our own lives. Because of them and because of one another and because of the God who binds us all together, we can do more than any of us had dreamed to do alone.

And how is sainthood attained? By the discipline of an iron-willed determination? Or by fame or notoriety for your religiosity? No. By an infusion of divine love, and by the sanctifying work of Jesus Christ. We are sanctified in Christ Jesus by virtue of our baptism, but we are called to be saints. As Wesley’s old hymn states, “All the saints thy love hath made.” To know the love of God, to feel it, even to be overawed by it, that is the beginning of sainthood. Sanctity is the renewing, life-changing work of God within human beings: the work that enables us to attain what we cannot achieve by sheer determination or by good works alone.

The Christ who has made ordinary people into the sanctified people of God is still active, seeking to do the same in us. In honoring those who have been changed by God’s love, we above all honor God and find hope for ourselves that God also can do the same work in us until we all are perfected in his presence along with all the saints of the ages. It is during Communion, at the table, that we remember that God’s sanctifying work is something that happens to us together and not alone. We become saints, not in quiet prayer rooms, but as we gather in community together. God’s work of making us a saint only happens in the midst of a community where we must learn the hard lessons of forgiveness, unconditional love and mercy as we first learn to receive it for ourselves then give it to others, even to those we may feel are undeserving. Somehow in all of the gathering, and in the reunion, and in the acceptance, we become saints.

I love this day because it gives me hope for myself, and for all of you. In the midst of my doubts, and sometimes my indifference, All Saints Day urges me on toward the high calling of God. Bernard of Clairvaux once expressed the significance of this day when he declared: “What does our commendation mean to them? The saints have no need of honor from us; neither does our devotion add the slightest thing to what is theirs. Clearly, if we venerate their memory, it serves us, not them. But I tell you, when I think of them, I feel myself enflamed by a tremendous yearning.”

Every year at this time I particularly am moved by this day as I take courage and renew my faith because my mother began her hospitalizationon on All SaintsDay that eventually would lead to her death.  It is hard to believe that it has now been six years since the event that took her from us. At first, it seems that she must have taken a long vacation or had an extended hospital stay. Now, eight years later, her absence is stark, but the memories are sweet. I don’t know all of the answers about where we go when we die, and where the dead are, but I do know she lives, and she lives in the embrace and loving presence of God. It makes me long for the same.

Every Sunday as the liturgy turns to that wonderful Eucharist prayer from The Book of Common Prayer, which says in part, “Therefore with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name”, I feel the strength of her presence as she joins me and all the saints present and in heaven in prayer and song. I imagine that she joins me in eating the Feast at the Throne of God, and that she belts out the great “Alleluia” when I do. She urges me on to the greatness of my calling, she inspires me to courage in my hardships, and she shares even more deeply now in my joy. On this All Saints Day, I will remember the legacy of her life, the great inspiration she was for me, and I will be inspired towards faithfulness all over again.

So, on this All Saints Day, we gather in the presence of saints, some gone before and some with us still, and we give thanks for the redeeming work of God that is making all of us saints. Some of us take a little longer than others, and God has a challenge with some of us more than others. But somehow in the mystery of Christ’s work, we all are being sanctified as we come together in communion again and again, refusing to let grievances, hurt or even death, end our relationships. We are a community of undeserving people drawn together around the table by the mercies of God, and here we find a common grace that keeps calling us together again and again, to keep leaning into this faith we profess, until God calls us all home and makes us saints.

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