Today, we celebrate the feast of All Saints. This year, in many areas of Ontario, the full extent of the festivities on “all hallows’ eve” was canceled due to the pandemic. Yes, disappointing to many, young and old; but traditionally, this night was, in fact, intended as a time of fasting and reflection -- the normative practice on the eve of any major Christian feast -- and not that of commercialized indulgence.
Having grown up in Russia in the early 90s, I remember Halloween as one the first Western traditions to filter in to us through the broken iron curtain. In my English language class, I learned that the curious sounding word was a contraction of “all hallows’ -- that is, all saints’ -- eve”. In our post-communist environment, this bit of information was of course as irrelevant as the custom of trick-or-treating itself, but the significance of All Saints Day began to interest me. Who are the saints? I wondered. The only familiarity I had with the saints as a child was from seeing their stoic, long-suffering, serious faces on the old icons in Russian churches. If being a saint meant forever being serious, then I knew for sure that I could never be one.
The next turn in my winding Christian path took me to an evangelical church, which in its strongly reformed approach, considered the veneration of saints to be a semi-pagan superstition. While trying to maintain, in theory, that all who believe in Christ are saints, in practice, we were always taught that nobody could ever be good enough to really be one. So once again, it seemed that whoever “all saints” were, they did not include me. Not that I ever had any illusions though, as I had not been able to muster any miracles to date, and my attitudes to my neighbour were not always all that saintly.
But with every passing year, and on each day of All Saints, I feel one step closer to that point in my spiritual journey when I might comfortably call myself a saint. An ordinary woman, a mom, and a priest -- none of which amounts to too much in the eyes of this world. All of that -- flawed, short-tempered, and tired – but, a saint! Because a saint is “a flawed person used by God to do divine things”. And that’s me. And you; and the people whose names are inscribed on all other different objects in this church: a whole big cloud of witnesses to God’s unceasing, loving work in the world. Or, you might think of them simply as “our family”.
In our homes, we celebrate our families by gathering, telling the stories of our shared past, and looking at family photographs. Whenever we do this, we remember that we are just the next set of branches on a great big vine, and experience that wondrous sense of connection with the world beyond “here and now”, which is filled with both beauty and tragedy of the scale that greatly surpasses our own hopes and troubles. Myself, I have spent many happy hours as a child looking at our old family albums, containing the photographs dating as far back as the late 1800s. Now, I continue to show them to my children.
And we do something similar at church as part of our observances of saints’ days, don’t we? Their own stories and images comprise a sort of a “family album”. Is it an album of holy, perfect (nonexistent!) people? Some boring people, perhaps -- prudish and excessively proper? Not at all. These are simply the people who have a personal relationship with God; some of them fictional, archetypal Biblical characters, and others -- historical leaders and teachers of the past, who had suffered for or exemplified their faith in remarkable ways.
Once, at my previous church, we had a “children’s focus” as part of the service on All Saints Day. The children’s minister offered the children to see a “real saint”. He made them close their eyes, then held a mirror in front of each of them in turn. The expression on my 5-year-old’s face upon opening his eyes was priceless: “how did THAT get in there?”, he exclaimed. Well, THAT gets here by acquiring the Image of God at the time of our conception. THAT continues to “let the light shine through”, as an old joke would describe a saint, referring to the stained glass portraits in church windows. And I might add, a saint colours the light as it shines through him or her, expressing the universal power of love in unique ways.
At Our Saviour, we don’t have pictures of saints in our windows, but we have this wonderful, abstract pane of multi-couloured glass spanning the entire facade of the building. Could we think of each piece of this window also as representing the unique individuals gathered here who, together, comprise a beautiful whole? What are some memories of the true sense of belonging that you carry with you over your lifetime? Maybe, the ones experienced in these very walls; or in communion with family, nature, arts and music, prayer and meditation. Wherever these experiences took place, let us treasure them, and put them together in a sort of a mental photo album to be shared with each other.
In doing so, may we celebrate our capacity to give and receive love; that is, the very basis for our true belonging in the family of all saints. This connection runs much deeper than theological views, denominational affiliation, Sunday morning rituals, or the choice of prayer books. Today, we do not celebrate the superhuman faith and power of a select few in a given tradition, but the fact that those members of our human family who are now in heaven have already been reconciled for all eternity with God, and with each other. And we, who are still here on earth, let us celebrate and anticipate that kind of harmony in our daily lives with each other. Thanks be to God.