Today (November 1st) is one of the most solemn and most sacred days in the Christian calendar. This one ranks right up there with Easter, Nativity, and all of Holy Week. All Saints Day (The Feast of All Saints) is the one day in the year when Christians remember all who have died, and particularly those saints who have died in the past year. This is the time when we remember these folks, how they lived their lives, and we celebrate their being in our lives.
Politics abound. Besides our own family and friends and church family, to be the prayer purist, it’s the time when we remember as well those who we didn’t particularly like, the ones we didn’t like at all (our enemies,) and those whose name is known only to the Heavens. Before you assume that this sounds like one big long funeral, it’s exactly the opposite! In the funeral, we have committed our friend over from our hands and our care, onto the next step when they are away from our lives and care. That can be a sad moment because the person we knew (no matter how testy or irritable or sick) is no longer with us. Their voice is gone from our lives. The Funeral (besides being an Easter tale) is about going away.
The Feat (Festival!) of All Saints is instead a party! Albeit a very solemn one in some churches. My experience with the festival goes to the very high church, what some folks half-jokingly call “smells and bells” as this is the time for pulling out all the vestments, the frankincense (myrrh would be appropriate too since it is a funereal spice) and have the big fancy dress ball for those who we so sorely miss.
And in the case of All Saints, instead of our being sad that the people are gone, we are now happy (in general) that those people are counted among all the saints who are around us each day. (Results will vary here, based on your belief in saints and/or a meditative practice of praying with saints.) As part of this Feast Day celebration we take time to enumerate those who have died this year, in some cases by a reading of the names of those who are gone. Don’t think of some long and sad drone here of folks who have tragically left us, but rather a listing, as if we are saying, “and these are the new ones who are on the other side, watching over us, or praying for us, or standing alongside us,” or whatever your particular belief.
And if you believe that once we have died then we pass into a state of non-being, then it is a time we can name these people and remember what good they brought to our lives, and we express our gratitude for having known and experienced them.
The prayers of the day bring us back to remembering all those saints (and apostles) who have died, and ask as a community that we be led to follow their example in a “godly life” as they had. And – having done so – at the end – share the same ineffable joys as those folks now have, after their labors (of life) are done.
The Feast of All Saints doesn’t have it’s own rubric (set of service directions) because this is an extension of a prayer that Christians do every time they gather together for The Prayers of the People.
We remember those who have died (in Christ’s Church), (remembering) especially…
At this point in the prayers, instead of perhaps those folks who have died recently (since the last service), the roster is read out usually in order from October 31 of the previous year to November 1 of this year. AND any others whose names the congregants put forth to be read in the prayer, who whose names can be spoken from the pews by the congregants. This sequence and name … pause … name … pause … name…. is a powerful moment in which we are given time and a sacred space in which to realize we are so not alone in our struggles. We do not walk a singular path, but we are surrounded by others who are like us, and on a similar path.
Name … pause … Name … pause … Name ….
Another prayer from the contemporary rite of the American Episcopal prayer book is this preface that is spoken as part of the Eucharistic prayers (that which is said before communion.)
For in the multitude of your saints you have surrounded us
with a great cloud of witnesses, that we might rejoice in their
fellowship, and run with endurance the race that is set before
us; and, together with them, receive the crown of glory that
never fades away…
A great cloud of witnesses. Note that the language is of celebrating their presence among us either in spirit or memory. And just as we walk along with the folks beside us here, the saints surround us in this great nuage of benediction, if nothing else then by the very memory of their having been.
Name … pause … Name … pause … Name ….
To finish off the party on a trinitarian high note, the service ends (or sometimes begins) with an upbeat hymn written by William How, with a toe-tapping tune by Ralph Vaughan Williams that is a 20th Century tune called Sine Nomine (which means “without a name.”) It’s a great traveling tune and so it’s mostly used for a processional melody because it’s easy to walk along to, it can be stretched out for as long as your “traveling party” is trying to get up and seated, and there is only one point of head bowing, right at the end, so there are fewer possibilities of casualty while walking, singing, bowing, etc.
And, you step off on the down beat which makes it tremendously fun to sing.
So it’s appropriate that we don’t drag out some doom and gloom funeral march for this day in which we celebrate this great cloud of Amen around us. Instead we have a nice upbeat song that adds our own Amen! to the lives of those whom we celebrate. (Having said that, the song is also used frequently as “exit music” for funerals, as with the funeral of President Gerald Ford, in Washington Cathedral.)
Today is the day we call the roll. We remember those who have gone on before us. If we are not into all the smells and bells of the day, and we don’t do jubilant hymn singing that is not “praise music,” or we don’t even do any of this religious froo at all, this is the day we can pause and remember those around us – on this side and the next – and smile in their presence and their memory.
Keep the faith!
(This is the slight variation on the lyrics in the British Hymnal of 1906.)
(the Lutheran variation on the lyrics.
*the Episcopal bow is marked in red in Verse 7)
“For All the Saints Who from Their Labors Rest”
by William W. How, 1823-1897
1. For all the saints who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confess,
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest, Alleluia! Alleluia!
2. Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress, and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well-fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light. Alleluia! Alleluia!
3. Oh, may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold. Alleluia! Alleluia!
4. O blest communion, fellowship divine,
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine. Alleluia! Alleluia!
5. And when the fight is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong. Alleluia! Alleluia!
6. But, lo, there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of Glory passes on His way. Alleluia! Alleluia!
7. From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host, Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Alleluia! Alleluia!
8. The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon, to faithful warriors cometh rest.
Sweet is the calm of Paradise the blest. Alleluia! Alleluia!
Since we are in the midst of the Memorial Day Weekend we all need reminders that this is not “national grill in the back yard day,” but has other, deeper, national meaning. A day of commemoration of those how are and have served in the United States Military, all branches, both at home and abroad.
This is a day to remember that some did not make it back from wherever they were stationed.
This is a day to remember those who served valiantly in the many armed conflicts of this country, and for whose sacrifice of time, and stress, and wellness, and distance from those they loved, helped defend and protect our national life.
This is not a day of arguing endlessly about the plus or minus values of war.
Not a day for speaking angrily of “cannon fodder,” and the economic inequities of those who serve our country.
This is a day we remember,
and especially those who have died on our behalf.
We offer the endless thanks of a gentle and peace-loving nation.
(For the prayer below I have used the singular male pronoun, shown in italics. These words may be adjusted as necessary.)
A Prayer of Committal of the Dead
Into your hands, O merciful Savior,
We commend your servant.
we humbly beseech you,
a sheep of your own fold,
a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.
into the arms of your mercy,
into the blessed rest of
into the glorious company of the saints in the light.