Psalm 34:1-10, 22 and Matthew 5:1-12
This morning, we celebrate the Feast of All Saints – the day when we remember the countless brave men and women of ages past whose Christ-centered stories inspire us, and call us to more faithful living. All Saints’, or All Hallows’ Day, is a day of honor and glory and praise; it is also, as contemplative priest Cynthia Bourgeault says, “the thinnest of the thin places between heaven and earth.”[i]
In lifting up the spiritual heroes who’ve gone before us, the matriarchs and patriarchs of holy scripture and of our own lives, we approach our own mortality. Yes, I said mortality. It may seem strange, or even jarring, to speak of mortality on a day when we will baptize six fresh and lively infants, but I promise you, it’s not… because All Saints’ Day, that “thinnest of the thin places between heaven and earth,” is the centerpiece of a larger observance known as All Hallowtide, or the Fall Triduum.
Don’t be frightened by the words! Hallow is just another word for saint, and triduum is Latin for three days. All Hallowtide, then, is a set of three holy days that comes every fall (at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere).
This is a moment in time when the movement of God’s beautiful and glorious Creation is its own Lesson; the falling leaves and the shortening days invite us to turn inward, to store up nourishment for our souls, and to acknowledge death for exactly what it is – natural, and unavoidable, but not the end of the story. This holy season is the backdrop, the illustration, of All Hallowtide.
Like our Triune God, the three days of All Hallowtide constitute one unified observance: October 31st, All Hallows’ Eve; November 1st, All Hallows’ Day; and November 2nd, All Souls’ Day (or, as we more commonly call them, Halloween, All Saints’, and All Souls’). Let’s look at them backwards.
The third day of this Fall Triduum is All Souls’ Day, the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed. This day is set aside to honor the everyday saints in our lives, the people whose names aren’t known far and wide, but who showed us how to be Christians.
I think of my maternal grandmother, who prayed and read her Bible daily, who never missed a Sunday service come hell or high water (and the high water did come, many times, in the form of hurricanes tearing through eastern North Carolina). My grandmother, who showed a shy, chubby, nervous little girl what unconditional love felt like.
I also think of Cy King, an unassuming librarian who fought in the Battle of the Bulge at age 22 and devoted the rest of his 91 years to nonviolence and pacifist activism. He was an original “social justice warrior,” who identified my gifts for ministry and insisted on calling me “Reverend” ten years before I was ordained.
Helen Catherine Carr Thornton and Cyrus Baldwin King are two of my personal saints – I wonder, who are yours?
The second day of the Fall Triduum is the Feast of All Saints. It’s always November 1st, and we typically celebrate it in church the following Sunday. This is the day we remember and celebrate the historic saints – listen for them in the Eucharistic prayer today – “the Blessed Virgin Mary, the patriarchs [and matriarchs], prophets, apostles, and martyrs, Blessed John, and all the saints who have found favor with [God] in ages past”[ii]. These are the ones who wrestled with God, whose allegiance to the Source of All Being was their defining loyalty, and who laid down their lives for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
We baptize on this day because it is that holy heritage which we all share, and into which we joyfully welcome new members. The stories of the saints inspire us, and those stories become the shared property of the newly baptized today.
The saints are the ones who lived out the challenge of the Beatitudes – the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, the ones who hungered for righteousness, and the ones who were persecuted and reviled because of their devotion to Jesus.[iii] The saints are those who “look[ed] upon [God] and [were] radiant” (in the words of the psalmist).[iv] Their radiance is a blessing and an invitation we all share as members of the eternal Body of Christ.
And what about the first day of the Fall Triduum? October 31st is All Hallows’ Eve. In our culture, Halloween has become the Great High Feast of Costumes and Candy Bars, but this commercial holiday is at its root a holy day – the eve of the feast of sainthood, the day we ready ourselves for naming and honoring our great cloud of witnesses.
When Christianity first began to catch on in the British Isles, the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain became an opportunity to demonstrate one’s faith in God and eternity. If I believe in a Savior who has conquered evil and destroyed the power of death once and for all time, what then can I fear? No ghost or ghoul or demon can hurt me; no nightmare can threaten me; nothing can shake the blessed assurance I possess as a member of the Body of Christ.
On all Hallows’ Eve, our Christian forefathers and mothers laughed in the face of death’s powers and declared themselves, and us, to be untouchable. That’s why we can smile when the neighborhood kids stand on the doorstep dressed as Freddy Krueger and Pennywise the clown – because we know we have nothing to fear.
This, then, is the essence of All Hallowtide – we have nothing to fear. Just as the leaves wither, and return to earth, and nourish new life long after they’re gone from our sight; we are members of an eternal Body, a Body that stretches beyond time and space, a Body undefeated by suffering and death, a Body that claims us fully despite our failures and mistakes. This is the communion of saints, the church universal, the eternal Body of Christ. This is the holy membership into which we baptize these precious children today.
This eternal Body of Christ supplies us with strength, joy, confidence, peace, and assurance that never runs out. It is a blessing, and a challenge, and an open invitation marked by boundless grace and undying love. In this season of cold and death and decay, let us give thanks for our membership in Christ’s Body and take to heart the words we sang as we began our service this morning:
“O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine
yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
Alleluia, Alleluia!”[v] Amen.