A cluster of important days crowds the liturgical calendar in late October and early November. This coming week we will celebrate All Hallows Eve, All Saints and All Souls; each of these holidays calls us to remember our forebears in faith whose witness continues to light our way.
The varied branches of the Church celebrate the days in distinctive ways. Some go to the cemetery; some eat special foods; some read the names of those who have died in the prior year during a special service. One of my favorites is the Guatemalan tradition of flying kites as a symbol of uniting heaven and earth.
Recently I spoke at the Cooperating Baptist Fellowship of Oklahoma’s “Celebrating Excellence” gathering. This event is held each fall to honor individuals who have been instrumental to God’s work through CBFOK. As part of my testimony about my early formation as a Christian in that red clay state, I recalled two pioneering ministers in my family tree who are surely among God’s saints.
My great uncle, Jasper Newton Marshall, was a beloved country preacher known in central Texas as the “Prophet of Pedernales.” He roved around the hill country in his buggy, finding ways to bring Gospel goodness to out-of-the-way places. I have read his memoir, and at one point he mentioned being called to the great northwest. I wondered if it was Oregon or Washington, only to learn that he meant Lubbock!
“Saints inspire us to live more luminous lives.”
My great-grandfather, W. S. Wiley, was an early church planter in Indian Territory. He started Sunday schools among the Cherokees, Choctaw and Creeks well before statehood in 1907. Traveling by horseback on his faithful companion, Morgan, he found ways to bear witness to his faith and learn from those he served. To his credit, he was concerned about eternal destiny of the first governor of Oklahoma – concerned enough to travel to the capital to see Governor Haskell, who confessed his faith in Christ.
I am not sure that either of these preachers in my family heritage would think I am the proper preacher to carry on this lineage, but thanks be to God for such a calling. Their lives cast a long shadow, and I am grateful for their legacy.
Along with confessing our belief in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, Christians confess that we believe in the communion of saints, a “Christian symbol that speaks of profound relationship,” in the words of Elizabeth Johnson in Friends of God and Prophets.
We can imagine “those whose rest is won” enjoying this relationship, but the communion of saints speaks of an ongoing connection between those alive in Christ this side of death and those treasured in memory and hope. It is possible to be near to them both, in the thinking of theologian Jürgen Moltmann. Because we are the one Body of Christ, we are closer together than we may realize.
Remembering those who have shaped our lives is an instructive spiritual discipline. We tend to think that those who have died have disappeared utterly from this world, no longer accessible. Yet, our imagination can bridge heaven and earth, and we can continue to receive the impact of their lives.
“The communion of saints speaks of an ongoing connection between those alive in Christ this side of death and those treasured in memory and hope.”
Alongside our practice of remembering these who have moved through death to life is the reality that God remembers them. God knows the names of those who have been largely forgotten; God remembers them and creates a space for them in God’s own eternity.
Actually, heaven and earth are not really so far apart. Perhaps it is time more than space that separates them. The writers of Scripture hold them together as interdependent spheres where God and creation dwell.
While the church has historically given priority to those who have died in the Lord when naming saints, it is also good to acknowledge those who are already shining forth. They sit next to us at church; they visit us when we are ill; they find the right words when we are suffering; or, they simply show up. They pray for us, send a note of encouragement and offer deep compassion when through fiery trials our pathway shall lie.
Johnson reminds us that the saints are those who have drawn so close to God that God’s own light “streams through them into the world. And the closer people draw to them, the closer they get to the divine.” They shine forth God’s glory in their fully alive presence, whether present in the body or absent with the Lord. Consciously seeking to emulate their nearness to God transforms our pilgrimage from this life to the next.
Saints inspire us to live more luminous lives. They light the pathway through their authentic faith, their love of God and others and their unnoticed acts of service. They not only bear faithful witness to the grace they have received, but also invite us to live graced lives, too.