all saints and all souls day...

NOTE:  My worship notes for Sunday, November 6th - our observance of All Saints and All Souls Day - a time to take stock of the rhythm of life and death and God's blessings in the midst of it all.

Most Western Christians – Reformed, Anglican or Roman Catholic – don’t really know the

origins of All Saints and All Souls Day. Intuitively we make a linkage between the growing darkness of this season and death; perhaps we know that these two holy days have something to do with those who have loved God and now have passed from this life to life everlasting; but these sacred observances all too often get smooched together with Halloween in our culture – and we never give them the proper time or reverence they deserve. Maybe we don’t want to take the time out of our busy lives. Many are uncomfortable with the emotions and reality of death so I suspect that some want to avoid and deny the whole mess. And there are some who just like the crazy distractions of Halloween parties and weird costumes – it’s become a lot like Mardi Gras for some – where we claim a bit of abandon and excess before getting back to business.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m ALL in for a good party, but healthy feasting requires respectful fasting too if we are to live into God’s balance. The depth psychologist, Carl Jung, used to say that human beings need life-giving rituals in our lives to keep us from pathological behavior: when we followed the rhythm of nature, celebrating the bounty of the harvest as well as the emptiness of fallow fields – when we lived closer to the cadence of light and dark, hot and cold, feasting and fasting – our religious rituals honored living in sacred harmony. As Western society became ever more secular – addicted to acquisition and personal autonomy – we lost touch with some of the ways we used to practice balance.

We still needed them, but our rituals were increasingly unhealthy – even dangerous. It is not coincidence that in a culture that rarely celebrates fasting and abstinence, we are now obsessed with dieting, staying slim to say nothing about the abundance of eating and drinking disorders. In a time when we don’t have much clarity about the practice of feasting it is also no wonder that Americans have become gluttonous with morbid obesity on the rise. And let’s not even open the door of our sleeping disorders, ok? Human beings organically ache for balance – it is built into our spiritual and physical DNA – and we will create rituals that either advance health and harmony or disease and brokenness.

I suspect that our infatuation with scary movies involving the supernatural is part of living out of balance: we know there is mystery and chaos in our world, we are emotionally hard-wired to honor the deeper truths of life that are beyond our comprehension; but we’re so thoroughly indoctrinated with secular habits of control that we refuse to open our hearts to the ineffable and numinous.

So I want to tell you about the origins of All Saints and All Souls Day in relation to today’s Scripture and then invite you to practice opening your hearts to the Lord in ritual prayer. All Saints Day began as a grass roots celebration in Europe a few hundred years before it was officially established in 605 CE . For three hundred years the way of Jesus had been opposed by the Roman Empire. Then in 312 CE Constantine I converted and made it the law of the land. There is much more to discuss about this institutionalization of Christ but that’s for another time. What I want to call to your attention now is that the earliest celebrations of All Saints Day began spontaneously as a way to honor the martyrs who had given their lives to God rather than betray the Lord to Empire. In the Eastern Orthodox world, the celebrations began in early May on the Sunday after Pentecost; in the British Islands they were observed in early November in connection to the Celtic feast of Samhain.

As Christianity spread, a centralized feast day was established to honor the martyrs. In Rome it was linked the Virgin Mary and all martyrs on May 13th after Pope Boniface IV consecrated the pagan temple we know as the Pantheon to Mary in 609 CE. Once the Pantheon had been the gathering site where all the gods and goddesses of Rome were honored. It was an enormous circular temple with a panoply of bronzed statues on the roof. The roof eventually collapsed, however, under the weight of these statues and lay in disrepair until it was reclaimed by the Church and rededicated to honor the mother of our Lord. Then Christian Romans flocked to this temple each May for they felt within themselves a need honor those who had gone before them in faith – and the Church gave this feeling shape and form. Holding a feast in May when the “food supplies were exhausted,” though proved problematic as the crowds grew too large. So, after trying to make it work for 130 years later, Pope Gregory III eventually changed the date of All Saints Day to correspond with the close of the harvest and now it happens on November 1. Soon thereafter All Souls Day was added to the veneration of the martyrs so that all our beloved ancestors – the holy as well as the humble – might be honored in the rhythm of the Lord. This time of year in the Northern Hemisphere feels reflective, the sensory reality of diminished light invites us to go inward.

So the marking of All Saints and All Souls Day in a Christian attempt to practice the wisdom tradition of ancient Israel wherein we were taught to honor every season: there is a time to be born and a time to die – a time to dance and a time to mourn – a time to speak and a time for silence. From the pulse of this sacred insight – a time to consider all things in community – All Saints and All Souls Day ask us to listen to the tale of a very ancient elder in our family of faith, the prophet Daniel, and wrestle with what he has learned about living a balanced life. For some of us Daniel will be the weirdest relative we’ll ever meet at a family reunion. 

We all have that oddball uncle or great-aunt who makes us wonder what the devil they’re talking about whenever they show up a Thanksgiving dinner, right? That’s how families are: unless the person is violent or dangerous there’s always a place for them at the table. And Uncle Daniel can sound almost incomprehensible with his apocalyptic rants of beasts rising from the chaos of the oceans and the Ancient of Days ruling heaven from a dazzling throne surrounded by light. But I’d like you to give old Dan a chance today because if you’re willing to take the time he has something important for us to know.

First, apocalyptic literature like Daniel and Revelations is a symbolic way of expressing the clash of chaos, evil and fear alongside of God’s loving grace. Hipsters in our era express these feelings in graphic novels. Others prefer the path of science fiction and dystopian movies like “The Hunger Games” or Philip Dick’s “Blade Runner.” And more mainstream children and parents discover these symbols in the Death Eaters and Dementors of the Harry Potter books and movies. Daniel uses these same exaggerated ideas to speak about the reality of bleak and frightening parts of life. Modern people of comfort may want to look the other way, but a lot of people know how terrifying and unfair life feels like these days. They experience powers and forces beyond their control – it feels monstrous. Uncle Dan is speaking for them.

Second, Daniel utilizes a fantasy language in code so that he can talk about the Greek occupying army of Alexander the Great and their allies in Israel in 167 BCE without them understanding. Daniel spoke about beasts and set his fantasy in 587 BCE back when ancient Israel was dominated by Babylon, but what he’s really talking about is how the Greeks desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem and forced faithful Jews to compromise their deepest commitments. Daniel is an allegory written in code language to remind his people of a deeper truth.

And that’s the third insight: this allegory of oppression and chaos will not last for only God’s rule is forever. The way of the beast in Daniel is painful, but it is not eternal. Look at our history, Daniel tells his beleaguered people in this psychedelic horror story: only the steadfast love of the Lord lasts forever. For those who had eyes to see, the four beasts terrorizing and polluting the world represented Babylon, Media, Persia and now Greece. All of them had once conquered ancient Israel – and then been vanquished. Because, and this is Daniel’s point, there is one who is greater than all the beasts and greater than the chaos: the dazzlingly and holy Ancient of Days the Lord our God. So as Jesus tells his disciples, there will be hard times – expect it – but know they are not the end of the story. Daniel is an ancient relative who reminds us not to give up.

 Like the African American story tellers and musicians during slavery who sang songs about nature that simultaneously told the people how to find the Underground Railroad, Daniel reminds us that the arch of the moral universe tips ever so slightly towards justice, hope and compassion. The monsters are real – but God’s love is greater.There will always hardship that cannot be eliminated; there will always pain and chaos that we cannot control; there will always darkness and death too that hurts and wounds us all. And, there will always be the steadfast love of the Lord that endures forever that is present even in the midst of the tumult that is bestial.

And what I find particularly important in the apocalyptic story-telling of Uncle Daniel is that even in the darkest night, God sends to us one like a human being – literally the son of man in Daniel’s original Aramaic writing – who comes from the realm of heaven to bring us comfort and light. One wise soul put it like this: relief from the monsters and solace from all that is beastly is sent to us by the Lord – and most often this arrives in the form of human love shared in solidarity and humility. And that’s just what Daniel affirms. There may be a debate among Biblical scholars as to whether Daniel meant an angel, the Messiah, a restored Israel or someone else here; all we know is that one like the son of man is promised to befriend the wounded and make whole all who are broken. And when that happens – when real people extend themselves to others trusting in God’s loving power – the beast is defeated. Small wonder our brother Jesus called himself the Son of Man and says this to us on the feast day of remembering our ancient family:

To you with ears to hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for
 those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. Love wins, beloved, the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever, not the beast.
So let me ask you now – today – can you bring to mind the names of loved ones who are no longer with you but have saved you the beast? They may come from your family – or your friends – they could be teachers or colleagues, soldiers or sports buddies. I suspect they could even be some of our pets who gave us a sense in our bleakest time that there was still a love greater than the darkness. I remember hearing an American POW during the Vietnam War say that the only thing that kept him sane and connected to his humanity during the time he was held captive in a Viet Cong tiger cage was repeating the verses of scripture he had to memorize in Sunday School and watching a spider lovingly repair its web over and over again. That spider became that soldier’s connection to the Lord – and he still gives thank to God for her every day.

 In just a moment I’m going to ask you to remember some of those who saved us – first two women from our own church who died over the past year – and then some of the loved ones in your lives who have died and gone from life to life everlasting. To help you focus, after the chimes and silence for the saints of First Church, Jon and I sing are going to share an old, old Celtic song that used to be used on All Souls Day by children. When we start to sing – and in the music Carlton may play afterwards – you are invited to come forward to write down the names of those saints and loved who have brought hope and love and salvation to your life. And then you can place these names on the Saints and Soul board where they’ll remain in tribute all month. If you want you can light a candle in their memory, too. Any or all of those options: your choice.

Whatever you choose, let this be a time of quiet gratitude for those God has sent into our lives to show us the love of the Lord when we needed it the most.

1) Catholic Online
2) Communio


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