"I sing a song of the saints of God". According to the hymn, saints include doctors, queens, shepherdesses, soldiers, priests, martyrs, school mates and teachers, people on trains, on boats, in shops, at church, or those gathered having tea (so perhaps our local coffee shop)...that list certainly broadens the idea of who or what a saint is. And that's just the point...the hymn concludes with "for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too".
They are folk like me. There's great hope in that. It means I don't have to be perfect. It means that with God's grace and help, I too can be a saint.
The celebration of All Saints Day as we know it now has various beginnings depending on where in the world Christianity had taken root.
In the Catholic Church tradition, the feast day had its first celebration in the year 609 or 610 when Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon at Rome to the Blessed Virgin and all the martyrs, Later in the 8th century under the guidance of Pope Gregory III, who established an oratory (or prayer space) in St. Peter’s for the relics "of the holy apostles and of all saints, martyrs and confessors, of all the just made perfect who are at rest throughout the world".
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the feast day was established in 9th century Byzantium when the emperor’s wife, Theophano died. Theophano had been known for her devotion and faithfulness to the Christian teachings of charity and love for the poor, the widows and orphans, and offering consolation to the sorrowful. Upon her death, Leo wanted to have a church built in her honor, but he was forbidden from doing so because Theophano was not a canonized saint. Instead, Leo dedicated the church to “all saints”, therefore including the pious Theophano among their number.
But Christians aren’t alone in their celebration of their ancestors. For Latinos, today is also connected with the celebration of Day of the Dead, or Dia De Los Muertos which traces its roots to Mexico.
The two day celebration honors the dead and “recognizes death as a natural part of the human experience, a continuum with birth, childhood, and growing up to become a contributing member of the community. On Dia de los Muertos, the dead are also a part of the community, awakened from their eternal sleep to share celebrations with their loved ones.”
But so what? How does the celebration of Christian martyrs, the history of a pious woman in the 9th century and a festival with its origins in Mexico connect with us in this time and place? What are we to do with this day on our liturgical calendar?
In the Forward to Holy Women, Holy Men former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold wrote: …”these courageous souls bore witness to Christ’s death-defying love, in service, in holiness of life, and in challenge to existing practices and perspectives within both the Church and society. The men and women commemorated….are not simply examples of faithfulness to inspire us: they are active in their love and prayer. They are companions in the Spirit able to support and encourage us as we seek to be faithful in our own day.” (vii-viii)
So today is an opportunity for us to re-member, to put back together, our large and ancient family tree. It is a chance for us to reflect on the lives of those who have gone before us be them John the Baptist, Lazarus, Mary of Egypt, or an empress named Theophano.
It is a time set apart to honor the courageous work of Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Absalom Jones. On this day we pay attention to the cycles of birth, life and death, knowing that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who have inspired and informed our own ministries: Molly Brandt, Vida Dutton Scudder, Oscar Romero, David Duncombe, and Rusty Kimsey.
Yes, we sing a song of the saints of God. And we look to them for inspiration and hope to respond with faith to God’s call to us.
As Robert Ellsberg explained, “No one is called to be another St Francis or St Teresa. But there is a path to holiness that lies within our individual circumstances, that engages our own talents and temperaments, that contends with our own strengths and weaknesses, that responds to the needs of our own neighbors and our particular moment in history” ( All Saints, 475-47).
Take a look around you…there are saints everywhere! Among us are people who feed the hungry, clothe the naked and give shelter to those without a warm, dry place. Among us are people who share a smile and a kind word in our most troubled times. If you look to your right and to your left, I would be willing to bet that these people have done something kind, courageous, loving, and life affirming.
There are saints among us.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.