I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I think we do ourselves a huge disservice on All Saints Day by remembering only those who have died in the past year.
Don’t get me wrong, I am incredibly grateful that the church has a time to look back on the previous year and remember those people who have joined the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us daily. It’s great to be able to celebrate the lives of those who have died, to grieve, and to remember what they did for and with the other members of the body of Christ.
Hearing the names of those who have passed read aloud is hauntingly powerful, even when I don’t know who the person was, because it helps me know in a visceral way that I am part of a larger story of creation. Knowing that I’m part of something larger than my own self and own time in history is incredibly comforting.
But like I said, I think we do ourselves a disservice by only considering those saints who have died.
St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco has a mural of dozens of dancing saints painted all along the walls. The saints include, besides Christians, animals and non-Christians who have advanced the cause of humanity.
I could wax poetic about St. Gregory’s broad-mindedness and their love of dancing, but what really intrigues me is that they have a saint painted on their ceiling who is still alive. Desmond Tutu is right up there with Lady Godiva, Thomas Merton and Paul.
So, I’ve been thinking a lot this All Saints Day, about what this day would look like if, in addition to those saints who have died, we prayed for, remembered and celebrated those saints that are still alive today.
What if on All Saints Sunday we celebrated those people who had been baptized in the past year and those who have died? I think that then a really interesting shift takes place in our way of thinking about sainthood. Reading the names of those who have been baptized acknowledges that even while we are alive, we are saints, gathered together with the saints of all times and places.
Lutherans like to talk about being simultaneously saint and sinner. I know personally that it’s much easier for me to think of myself as a sinner than a saint. But maybe this All Saints Day is a good time to think about our status as saints … and what makes a person a saint.
I’d count among the saints people like the pastor who set me out on my vocational path of ministry. I’d count my grandfather, who valued education and his grandkids. I’d count my barista at my favorite coffee shop who tirelessly pulls shots of espresso for me. And I’d count the guy who smiled at me in line at the grocery store, which lifted my mood for the day last week. All these people, in their own saintly way, affected my life in different ways.
I think noticing the “saint-ness” of all people, while also experiencing the cathartic nature of hearing our departed saints’ names read aloud gives us a beautiful tension to live in. This is a tension of being surrounded by a cloud of witnesses that have passed, as well as seeing ourselves as part of a greater humanity of saints with whom we interact every day. This is a tension that gives us the hope of a future when all the saints will be united together in the glory of the kingdom of God.