Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints, or All Hallows, remembering the communion of all the faithful departed who lived holy lives. This is a very ancient festival which developed independently of pagan traditions. There are sermons from the 4th century in the eastern churches (in Syria, Edessa, and Antioch) commemorating the martyrs. By the 8th century, the feast of the saints was proclaimed as a special holy day, often replacing a local festival remembering the dead. Pope Gregory III (731-741) settled the date at the beginning of November. All Hallowtide has gradually expanded to a triduum (three days) honoring death. This mirror of the Easter triduum includes the evening before All Hallows (Hallowe’en) and the day following (the Commemoration of All Souls). All Saints reminds us that Christians have a unique understanding of death. We believe that the dead are not erased, but that they become part of the Communion of Saints in heaven.
We also believe that ordinary people can be saints. If one reads about the saints, they emerge as interesting, opinionated, unusual and complex people who are a lot more interesting than stained glass windows. St Jerome (4th century) was a cantankerous and scholarly old monk who argued with everyone, including the Pope and his Bishop. He also translated the Hebrew and Christian scriptures into Latin. Known as the Vulgate, his translation was used throughout the middle ages. St Simeon (5th century) lived 37 years as a hermit standing on a tall pillar in Aleppo. St Elizabeth of Hungary (13th century) was widowed young, and used her resources to feed the poor. St Joan of Arc was a shepherd before she led the French army to victory during the Hundred Years’ War (14th century), wearing armor over her dress. Many of the saints were more ordinary. They were not martyred. Some married and had families. Some were monastics. Many cared for the poor and the sick. What they have in common is not their perfection, but their desire to follow the will of God.
When Jesus preaches his sermon on the plain, as remembered in the Gospel of Luke, he has just come down from the hills where he has prayed to God extensively. There are three distinct groups of people listening to his teaching. There is a large, diverse crowd of Jews and Gentiles from Tyre and Sidon, Jerusalem, and Judea, many of whom are seeking healing. Are they listening for the consolation they needed from the Healer? There is a smaller group of disciples, people who want to learn about the meaning of a life with God. Perhaps they are discerning what they needed to understand about God’s will. And there are Jesus’s twelve newly-appointed apostles, whom Jesus has chosen to carry out his work. Are they observing the Messiah with watchful eyes, trying to learn what he does? Each of these groups is attracted to Jesus and his teaching, seeking to pursue holiness in some manner. And it is likely that they heard the message through their varying filters of need, commitment, and intention.
Our community is much the same as this large group following Jesus through Galilee. We are from different places and religious backgrounds, young and old, partnered and single, a variety of orientations and economic states. We bring with us our needs, commitments, and intentions for God. The good news that Jesus preaches is for each of us, inviting us to participate in the Reign of God, to be saintly in whatever condition we find ourselves. Perhaps we do not experience our selves or our life as particularly “blessed.” Poverty, hunger, grief, being marginalized – being human – these are not the context we expected for blessing, are they? Yet Jesus proclaims blessing in adverse conditions as a promise of a glorious future that will be realized when Jesus’s teachings are actually observed and the usual human power dynamic has been reversed. (That is the woes).
When the saints come marching in, all the blessing will overwhelm the brokenness of this life, including our own brokenness.
Today is the Feast of All Saints, not the Feast of the Successful Saints or the Perfectly Saintly. All Saints. Saints are sinners who know we are forgiven. (Thank you, Nadia Bolz-Weber). Jesus challenges all who hear him to embrace sainthood, to live and to think differently. I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you . . . do to others as you would have them do to you.
Today is the Feast of All Saints. Understand it or not, ready or not, we are the saints. We have come through the great ordeal of living, through a pandemic and through the past week or two. Our souls are battered and possibly a little dusty – marked by errors, losses, regrets, all sorts of failures. And we have been forgiven, not because of anything we have done but because God simply loves us and sees the goodness infused in our souls. We will not understand the process or the equation, because this is entirely through the work of Grace accomplished by Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. There is nothing we could ever do to un-do the work and the power of Christ. Rejoice and be gladdened. We are all invited to the party. Bring your best halo.
Daneen Akers. Holy Troublemakers and Unconventional Saints. (Watchfire Media, 2019)
Sean Kelly and Rosemary Rogers. Saints Preserve Us!: Everything You Need to Know About Every Saint You’ll Ever Need (Random House, 1993).
Debra Mumford. Working Preacher Blog. “Commentary on Luke 6.20-31.”
Corey Far. “On Turning the Other Cheek (and How It Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means).” A slap on the right cheek meant the soldier backhanded the Jews, which was a far more demeaning slap. “It was degrading,” he said. “It was what you gave to an inferior or a slave.” To not break down emotionally and simply turn the other cheek meant that the soldier couldn’t slap you again on the right cheek, and, Farr said, “he can’t slap you with his left hand, because that is unclean for both of you.” The soldier’s only option was to slap with the palm of his hand, and “this was not the way to slap a slave. This was reserved for equals.” Thus, in giving the other cheek, the degraded person asserted his humanity in a brave countermove — a humble response, yet also an act of courage against an oppressive system.
Nadia Bolz Weber. “It’s All Saints, not Some Saints.”