By Molly T. Marshall
A cluster of important days crowds the liturgical calendar in late October and early November. We will celebrate All Hallows Eve, All Saints and All Souls during this week, and it is a good time to give thanks for our forebears in faith whose witness continues to inspire us. I will spare you the church history lecture, but these ecclesial holidays go way back.
In the Middle Ages these days were given to remembering the dead, and all the accoutrements of Halloween (witches, black cats, ghosts and, more recently, zombies) came later. The earlier versions included fun and revelry; we are not the only generation to find reasons to dress silly and have a good party!
As Baptists devote more attention to the Christian year, we could profit from celebrating these important days. Some congregations use Memorial Day as a time of remembering those who have departed in the prior year — solemnly reading their names, often accompanied by a tolling bell. Why not make the Sunday nearest All Saints a time of giving thanks for their lives? It would be a way of keeping good company for some of them!
Celebrating Eucharist on that day could further enrich the service. The church gathers with Christ’s whole Body — with those whose rest is won and those still running the race. It would be a way to draw near to the dead in Christ as we remember their graceful imprint on our lives. Death cannot sever the unity of the Body of Christ.
The lectionary reading for All Saints gives us a vision of the faithful gathered in the life to come: “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the lamb!” (Revelation 7:9-10).
This encompassing body expresses the hope of Christians: that ultimately we will be found in God’s safekeeping.
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.
This relationship is surely enjoyed by those who have departed in faith, 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. This past Sunday I preached at First Baptist Church of Ann Arbor, Mich.; there I encountered the daughter of my beloved teacher, Dr. Dale Moody, of blessed memory, professor of theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Dr. Moody helped me integrate Scripture and science in creative ways, which was a lifelong scholarly passion for him. He encouraged me as a woman in ministry and theologian, even as he continued to interrogate a patriarchal system where women were not welcome in the pulpit or as professors in theology. It was his advocacy that helped me become the first woman to teach theology at Southern. Seeing his daughter, Linda, prompted an overflow of gratitude for this saint in my life.
Even more important than our remembering these who have moved through death to life is the reality that God remembers them. As the Psalmist says, “The Lord redeems the life of God’s own servants; none of those who take refuge in God will be condemned (Psalm 34:22). God knows the names of those who have been largely forgotten; God remembers them and creates a space for them in God’s eternity. For this, we give thanks.
As we celebrate All Saints in our churches, we recall those who have gone before us with profound trust in the Living God. They died with confidence that God was making room for them in God’s own eternity.
And so we pray with St. Cyprian: “We must not weep for our brothers and sisters whom the call of the Lord has withdrawn from this world, since we know that they are not lost, but have gone on ahead of us; they have left us like travelers, navigators, in order to lead the way ….”
Communing with them and with those with whom we make our slow way across the earth reminds us that we need their saintly ways to shine light for our pilgrimage.