The Saints at Rest
Today is the transferred commemoration of All Saints’, which is actually a merging of three holy days: All Hallows’ Eve on 31 October (which gives us the holiday of Halloween), All Saints’ Day on 1st November and All Souls’ or the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed on the 2nd. These three days have a rich history in the Christian tradition. This is the only feast in our Kalendar that is allowed to be transferred to the Sunday following – Christmas doesn’t get this honor. The reason is that we need to remember that our faith and our religious practices do not occur in a vacuum, but rather is built on the shoulders of those faithful Christians who have gone before us.
The readings for today are also among those readings appointed for the Liturgy for the Burial of the Dead. It’s good that we hear these readings in a context other that a funeral.
The anonymous writer of the Wisdom of Solomon gives assurance that “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them” (3:1). Even though it would seem that they have suffered and died, they are now at peace where “their hope is full of immortality” (v. 4). Any suffering they have endured is like a refiner’s fire in which they have been purified. They will govern nations, and as God’s holy ones they will abide in the Lord’s truth, grace, and mercy.
The vision of the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:1 — 22:5) in the Book of Revelation gives a description of life in the coming age when “death will be no more” (21:4). Originally written to bring hope to those who suffered in a time of persecution, these promises of God’s future continue to bring comfort and strength.
Here God’s work of reconciliation is reflected in the renewal of all creation (cf Is. 65:17; 66:22). In this vision, heaven and earth are completely transformed into “a new heaven and a new earth” (21:1). The Holy City of Jerusalem has been restored and is like a bride adorned for her groom.
In this new age, God will dwell among mortals and will be their consolation, wiping every tear from their eyes (v. 4a). Suffering, evil, and death will be vanquished, causing God to declare, “See, I am making all things new” (v. 5). Furthermore, we can be assured that these words are a present as well as a future reality — true from the beginning to the end, for “It is done!” (v. 6).
The Gospel reading from John’s Gospel recounts Jesus’ encounter with Martha before he raises Lazarus from the dead. It gives us a glimpse of Jesus’ power in the face of the ultimate human existential crisis. Jesus tells Martha that her brother will rise because he is the source of Resurrection and Life.
All three of the readings serve to remind us that death is never the final word – in fact death is fleeting in the face of God’s dominion. The Good News here is that because of Jesus’ resurrection we are able to stand beside the open grave of a loved one and NOT go stark raving mad.
As I write these words, I am aware that my father is in Hospice (I covet your prayers), preparing for his own death, just as he prepared many of his parishioners during his ministry as a pastor – death he cheated several times during his service as a Marine in the Pacific Theater during World War II. He is a part of the “Greatest Generation,” yet he has lived as faithfully and humbly as possible.
Physical death is a part of the natural order – something not to be feared but embraced because our faith teaches us that God alone will have the final word, and we have heard that final word in our readings. “The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God …;” “…death shall be no more…” and “… I am the Resurrection and the Life…” This is the final word on the subject. Perhaps we should consider this verse from St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun. A translation is in our Hymnal:
And even you most gentle death, waiting to hush our final breath. You lead home the child of God, for Christ our Lord that way has trod.Hymn 400, Episcopal Hymnal, 1982
The Good News on this Sunday in All Saintstide is that the whole of our lives are caught up in God’s unchangeable, infinite, redeeming love. That love will ultimately have the final word for our souls; and at the last we hear “I am Resurrection and the Life.” “Death shall be no more.” And “the souls of the righteous are in in hands of God [and]… they, and we, will be at peace.”
So it is now and will be forever even unto the Ages of Ages.