By the Rev. Darren Miner
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In the Name of the Father, and of the ✠ Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is All Saints’ Day, a “principal feast day” in the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church. And so, here we are, gathered together to commemorate all the saints. But what exactly do we mean my the word “saints”? In the early church, all baptized Christians were called saints. All were considered holy. All were considered set apart for God’s use. Only later did the term become limited to those who had lived lives of heroic sanctity and, most especially, those who had crowned their lives as martyrs to the faith. As a result of this change in connotation, the remembrance of the “unheroic” faithful was put off to the following day, the feast of All Faithful Departed, more commonly known as All Souls’ Day. Frankly, I prefer the earlier usage. I like to think of this day as a day to remember all the faithful of ages past, whether or not they were particularly “heroic” in their faith.
But this feast day is not just about looking backward. This day is also a day of looking forward. The prayer book designates this feast as one of four baptismal feasts, at which we dedicate new saints to God through Holy Baptism and at which we may optionally renew our own status as saints by solemnly reaffirming our baptismal vows. Truly, this is a day to remember all the saints—past, present, and yet to come.
In the first reading, taken from the Wisdom of Solomon in the Apocrypha, we are reminded that death is not the ultimate disaster, because death is not ultimate. Death is not the end, at least, not for the righteous. When we have recently lost a loved one, we certainly feel that death is the end, the ultimate disaster. Grief can blind us to the truth. But in fact, the departed are not altogether departed from us. Through the power of divine love, we are mystically united to those who have gone before us in the Communion of Saints. Just as we remember them in our prayers, so I believe they continue to pray for us here on earth. And at each Eucharist, we are reminded that all the company of heaven join in our hymn of praise to the God of power and might. At each Eucharist, we are drawn back into communion with the so-called “departed.” But on this particular feast day, we are asked to pause and to take note of our living connection to the dead, to those who have transcended this veil of tears and for whom all suffering is now past.
In the Wisdom of Solomon, we are given one answer to the question of life’s suffering, although it may not be a fully satisfactory answer to many of us. We are told that suffering is a test of faith and a spiritual discipline. Likewise, in the book of Job, which we heard read just last week, Job’s suffering was explained as a test of faith. But since that particular test came about as a result of a rather capricious wager between God and Satan, the test seems to us to be unfair. I dare say that all tests of faith, that all human suffering, seem to us to be unfair. The answer that Job gave us is that God’s thoughts are beyond our thoughts and that we are not equipped to judge the Creator. The answer that the Wisdom of Solomon gives us is that the brief suffering that we experience in this life pales in comparison to the everlasting life with God that awaits the faithful. In other words, we are advised to keep it all in perspective!
In the second reading today, from the Revelation to John, we are given a highly symbolic vision of the reward of all the saints. The universal slate will be wiped clean. There will be a new Heaven and a new Earth. And we shall all dwell in the new Jerusalem come down from Heaven. We shall all dwell in the very presence of God Most High. At that point, all tests of faith shall pass away. All discipline shall pass away. All suffering shall pass away. Death itself will be no more, and both the living and the dead will once again be reunited. Most of us here have lost a loved one. Just imagine, for a moment, what it would be like to be reunited to that dead parent or grandparent, to that husband or wife, to that brother or sister, to that best friend. Imagine the joy of that reunion! That is why even at the grave we Christians make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
And then we come to the Gospel reading and the story of the raising of Lazarus. To be honest, it’s an odd choice for All Saints’ Day. The connection of this reading to the Communion of Saints is tenuous at best. Be that as it may, this emotional account is a strong reminder that divine love is more powerful than death. And the story is undoubtedly emotional, albeit the emotions expressed are both confused and mixed.
Jesus arrives several days too late to heal his friend Lazarus. Mary, one of Lazarus’ two sisters, lays a guilt trip on Jesus. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus reacts emotionally to the death of his friend and to the weeping of Mary and the attending crowd. And here is where the standard English translation fails. For what the Greek says is that Jesus reacted angrily, fuming inside and working himself into a state of turmoil. Why the anger? Some think Jesus was angry at the tearful expressions of unbelief he witnessed. Others think that he was angry at death itself. I think it more likely that Jesus was angry because his hour had finally come. Out of love, he felt compelled to restore Lazarus to life, and yet he knew that this would be the one act that would incite the Jewish authorities to seek his death. Amidst the inner turmoil and the contagious grief of Mary and the crowd, Jesus literally bursts into tears.
And then Jesus does something truly remarkable, something truly miraculous: he raises the rotting corpse of Lazarus out of death into life. According to the Gospel of John, from this moment on, the Jewish authorities sought to kill both Jesus and Lazarus. Now, how and when Lazarus died we don’t know. But surely Lazarus did die again. This gift of new life given to Lazarus was but a foretaste of the Resurrection at the Last Day, just as Jesus’ decision to risk his life to save this one man was a but foreshadowing of his full and perfect sacrifice on the Cross to save the whole world.
On this great baptismal feast day, as we remember the saints of God who have preceded us, as we remember loved ones whom we dearly miss, we can abide in the Christian hope, that is, in the hope of the Resurrection of the Dead. For just as Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, albeit to die again someday, so God raised Jesus from the dead to live in eternal glory. And so God will raise all his saints, all the faithful of every generation, to new and unending life in Christ Jesus. For now, our joy is tinged with sorrow for the loss of loved ones. But soon our joy will be complete, for all God’s saints will be reunited in that place where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
© 2015 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.