Thursday, October 29, 2015


All Saints picture - Albrecht Durer
All Saints - Durer
All Saints' Day is a 'principal feast' of the Church. So when it falls on a Sunday, as it does this year, it takes precedence over the usual sequence of Sundays in Pentecost. The readings differ over the three years of the lectionary, and in interestingly different ways they reflect on themes associated with 'the 'Communion of Saints' -- death, heaven, martyrdom, glory, and life in the presence of God. The readings for this year include Psalm 24 which asks a key question: "Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?" The same Psalm supplies an answer: "Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false. . . They will receive blessing from the LORD, and vindication from the God of their salvation." It is natural to ask, however, just how inclusive the company of saints is and will be.

In times past, and in many places still, there is a separate 'Commemoration of All Souls' one day later, on November 2nd. Thus, traditionally a distinction has been drawn between 'exceptional' Christians, and others of a more ordinary 'wayfaring' sort.

All Souls' Night - Bradley Walker Tomlin
All Souls Night -- Bradley Walker Tomlin (1947)
In recent times, especially in the United States, the practice has arisen of effectively converging the two days, and making All Saints Day an occasion for commemorating all the 'faithful departed' as well. There are a number of explanations for this change. Some are historical and have to do with Protestant anxieties about masses for the dead. But in some minds there is also a spirit of egalitarianism at work -- the idea being that our prayers and celebration ought to be inclusive, of everyone, regardless. There is something to be said for this, of course. Yet it is a loss too. Not only does it diminish the extraordinary and inspiring faithfulness that only some Christians have shown in the face of difficulty, adversity and persecution, it also leaves the ordinary wayfarer with nothing to aspire to.

St Paul, in a famous metaphor, describes the task of  Christians as 'running the race set before us'. In the actual world of athletics, we don't expect everyone to be a winner, and we admire the exceptional accomplishments of a few. Perhaps we should preserve this aspect of Paul's metaphor. Saints, we are told, are those who have been 'the lights in their generations'. To describe everyone in this way unhelpfully disguises the fact that the vast majority of Christians who are trying to be faithful need a few such lights along the way.

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