More thoughts about all saints day...

The ever-evolving nature of this holy day is intriguing to me and speaks to my own inner journey towards honoring both the terrifying and comforting presence of the Lord.  It would seem that early in the life of the church, certainly by the early 4th century and probably much earlier, too, the remembrance of a regional martyr was embraced as a sacred duty. As regions began to gather together to share these ceremonies of gratitude - feasts -and as the number of martyrs increased, it became necessary to name one day each year for all the saints to be honored. Originally this was the first Sunday after Pentecost - a date still in place in the Eastern Orthodox realm - but was sometimes observed on the Friday after Easter in the West.

Pope Boniface institutionalized "the solemnity of all saints" as a single day in 609 and Pope Gregory I fixed the date as November 1st for the Western churches.  As others have noted elsewhere, Gregory was borrowing from the Celtic observance of samhain - and other pre-Christian celebrations - as he added a taste of Christ to a variety of cultural celebrations.  Jack Santino put it like this:

In 601 A.D. Pope Gregory the First issued a now famous edict to his missionaries concerning the native beliefs and customs of the peoples he hoped to convert. Rather than try to obliterate native peoples' customs and beliefs, the pope instructed his missionaries to use them: if a group of people worshipped a tree, rather than cut it down, he advised them to consecrate it to Christ and allow its continued worship. In terms of spreading Christianity, this was a brilliant concept and it became a basic approach used in Catholic missionary work. Church holy days were purposely set to coincide with native holy days. Christmas, for instance, was assigned the arbitrary date of December 25th because it corresponded with the mid-winter celebration of many peoples. Likewise, St. John's Day was set on the summer solstice.

Two personal thoughts have been swimming around within as I've reflected on All Saints Day:

+ First, in a book we are slowly reading together at church, Rediscovering Reverence by Ralph Hientzman, he notes that so many of us in the affluent West live without an awareness of reverence in our lives. "... what modern societies have lost is not reverence itself, but rather the IDEA of reverence... This makes it very hard for us consciously to nourish or develop the virtues of reverence, so essential to the kind of society any of us would want to live in. And it also makes it hard to understand the roots of some the deepest, most persistent and most HUMAN forms of expression, such as religious practice." (p. 22)

So we create ersatz encounters with the supernatural and obsess over zombie and vampires.  Jung once predicted that a culture that does not nourish a sense of the sacred with a cycle of reverence, will manufacture pathological habits that mimic the real deal.  We don't fast any more, but we diet 24/7 and celebrate eating disorders in women (and increasingly in men, too.) We don't honor the Sabbath in any meaningful way, but we spend ourselves into debt taking vacations or hosting destination wedding ceremonies that force us out of the grind of making money and living at the call of others.  We know almost nothing of quiet contemplation, but weep uncontrollably at tender and beautiful commercials on TV or country songs that break through the din and force us to take stock of what really matter if even for 20 seconds.
Like Lou Reed sang in "Romeo Had Juilette" - "her perfume burned  into his eyes -
holding tightly to her thighs - And something flickered for a minute - and then it vanished and was

+ Massachusetts is about to vote on a ballot initiative known as the "death with dignity - question 2" bill next Tuesday.  To my mind, it is a poorly conceived proposition without clear protections for both patient and doctor.  I am voting no and encouraging others to do so, too.  In Sunday's NY Times, Ezekiel Emanuel, an oncologist at the University on Pennsylvania, had an OP-Ed column that was timely:  Four Myths About Doctor-Assisted Suicide." ( 

He notes:  while pain is often cited as the fundamental reason for choosing doctor-assisted suicide, the facts show that "patients themselves say that the primary motive is not to escape physical pain but psychological distress; the main drivers are depression, hopelessness and fear of loss of autonomy and control."  He goes on to debunk 3 other popular apologies for doctor-assisted suicide before asking:  "Whom does legalizing assisted suicide really benefit? Well-off, well-educated people, typically suffering from cancer who are used to controlling everything in their lives - the top 0.2%. And who are the people most likely to be abused if assisted suicide is legalized? The poor, poorly educated, dying patients who pose a burden to their relative."

I have been with well over 100 people in their deaths - and always they dying have a gift to share with those of us who continue to live in this realm.  It is often a beautiful and life-healing gift.  Sometimes, as in my sister Beth's recent passing, it was ugly and harrowing to endure.  And there were times, especially in the middle of the night sitting vigil to keep her company, when I wondered, "wouldn't it be better - easier - just to end this now?"  But I know from faith and experience that taking the easier road is usually not the way of Christ.  He spoke of the road less travelled and the narrow path - even when it means suffering - because something sacred is at work beyond our ability to comprehend.

Dr. Emanuel concludes his NY Times article with words that touch me as All Saints Day draws near:

Instead of attempting to legalize physician-assisted suicide, we should focus our energies on what really matters: improving care for the dying - ensuring that all patients can openly talk with their physicians and families about their wishes and have access to high-quality palliative or hospice care before they suffer needless medical procedures. The appeal of physician-assisted suicide is based on a fantasy. The real goal should be a good death for all dying patients.

I've seen good deaths - it has been a sacred privilege to be with loved ones as they cross over in faith - I've seen hard and angonizing deaths, too.  Let us not take the wide path but in love and compassion let us help all our saints move from life to death and even life everlasting in ways that bring blessings to us all. 


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