Monday, October 30, 2017

All Saints'...Sunday?


If you want to go to church to celebrate Christmas, you either need to show up on December 24 or 25. If you want to be in church for the Epiphany, you have to get there on January 6. If you want to celebrate the Feast of the Ascension, then you've got to make the trek to church on the Thursday that falls 40 days after Easter Day. None of those principal feasts can be moved away from their fixed dates in the calendar. But All Saints' Day? We're quite happy to move it from November 1 to whatever Sunday follows it. Who cares if the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost falls off the calendar and vanishes into a liturgical netherworld?

I'm fascinated by this arrangement in the calendar. What is it about All Saints' that either makes it more important or less important than the other feasts that it is the only one (other than a patronal feast in ordinary time with permission of the bishop) that can be moved from a weekday to a Sunday? Or maybe there's something intrinsic about the feast of All Saints that makes it particularly appropriate for Sunday observance.

With a calendar full of sanctoral observances, it is easy to imagine that All Saints' Day gives us a chance to fold all of them together and save the trouble of going to church for all the major and minor observances. But I don't think that's the real origin of this feast. Likewise, it would be easy to conjecture that All Saints' Day provides an opportunity to remember all the saints who are known and unknown, suggesting that there's a commonality to sainthood that, unlike with St. Peter or St. Clare, the ordinary faithful have access to on this feast. I think that's beginning to get to the heart of the issue, but it's still not a great reason for giving up a Sunday. I think the best reason for observing All Saints' on a Sunday is expressed in one of the concluding collects suggested for the Prayers of the People on BCP p. 395:
Almighty God, by your Holy Spirit you have made us one with your saints in heaven and on earth: Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage we may always be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer, and know ourselves to be surrounded by their witness to your power and mercy. We ask this for the sake of Jesus Christ, in whom all our intercessions are acceptable through the Spirit, and who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.
In one way or another, God has fashioned a connection between the saints in heaven and the saints on earth, and All Saints' is a day to celebrate it. To use archaic, perhaps unfortunate labels, the Church Triumphant and the Church Militant are united in purpose, and All Saints' Day bridges the gap in at least two ways. For starters, as a clergyperson closer to the Protestant end of our tradition, I find the reminder that all disciples of Jesus are made holy or "saints" by God is more fully enhanced by the call to remember all the saints and not just the famous ones. I am a saint because, by the Holy Spirit's work, I belong to Jesus, whose death and resurrection have made me holy. All Saints' Day celebrates that.

The second reason is that, in ways I do not understand, we are supported in our earthly pilgrimage by all those who have gone before. Their witness, their love, their example, their story of God using them for the building up of God's kingdom are both psychologically and, in inexplicable, supernatural ways, physically/actually effective in strengthening our faith. Other than an occasional "For the love of Pete!" or "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!" I do not appeal to the saints for their support. Although I'm quite happy to imagine that their souls are with God in heaven, I also trust that the soul is unconscious without the body, to which it will be reunited at the last day. So calling on Mary or Peter may make me feel better in the same way that I might summon the memory of my late grandfather to give me strength in a tough moment, but it's not a magical way to find a lost object or sell a house. (Sorry, Joseph and Anthony.)

I'll say more about the lessons for All Saints' later this week, but it's worth noting that it's never a bad time to remember the beatitudes. We are blessed not because of our earthly victory but because of our earthly struggle. The veneration of all the saints captures this reality in a way that reminds the saints on earth to remain patient in their suffering. We are united, therefore, in purpose and vocation. The celebration of the poor, meek, and mournful on All Saints' helps us embrace a life of poverty, meekness, and sadness as a part of our discipleship--our own sainthood. If we're going to make that connection explicit, we need to do so on a day when all the ordinary people are in church--not a Wednesday but a Sunday.

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