A feast of ‘splendid nobodies’

All Saints Day calls us to remember and give thanks for those who have gone before us.

By Molly T. Marshall

Each fall I teach a course titled “Spirituality and Creativity” with the entering cohort in our create program, a rather up-tempo form of the master of divinity.

We meet at Conception Abbey, a hospitable Benedictine monastery in northwest Missouri. While there, we explore what it means to be in formation as a minister, and we clarify what the Spirit is seeking to do in their lives.

When a monk takes final vows, he selects three possible new names and submits them to the abbot for his decision. I decided that this might be an insightful and fun exercise for us, as well.

The students were not content simply to submit the names; they wanted me to function as an abbess and choose one for each, a daunting task. Yet, I could tell by the rationale they used in choosing why a certain name would be more apt.

Not surprising, the names of the great saints of the church, as well as biblical heroes, were brought forth: John of Patmos, Bernadette, Joseph, Hildegarde, among others. A new name is aspirational, and it is usually linked to remembrance of one who lived before God in an exemplary way. We even tried using the names, giggling at the presumption of claiming kinship with these forebears.

Paul seemed to believe that “saints” was a good way to describe those whose identity is bound up in Christ. The epistle lesson for All Saints encourages us to know the hope of our calling, the riches of Christ’s “glorious inheritance among the saints” (Ephesians 1:18).

There are no individual persons named “saints” in the New Testament. The term was reserved for the whole community. Notwithstanding, certain persons are noteworthy, and Scripture records their names.

Paul often concluded an epistle with commendation of congregational leaders. Hebrews 11 is the classic text of striking leaders, persons full of faith and the power of the Spirit. The roll call of saints even included some women!

Every congregation has a glorious inheritance of remarkable leaders and servants who marked out pathways worthy of emulation.

At my church, there was a beloved saint, Margaret James, who had made provision through her estate for her congregation to pursue some of her key concerns.

A portion of her bequest was allocated to the church’s capital campaign and endowment fund, but about one third was designated for mission projects. Prairie members were invited to submit applications for grants that would be in keeping with her life of service. And yes, some little girls have been named for her.

It is usually when the saints have departed that we see the larger impact of their lives. When we hear their stories told, often of acts of quiet generosity, we realize the graceful instruments God has placed in our midst.

Sometimes their luminosity shines forth unmistakably while they are among us, and we are the better for having been in their company.

As Elizabeth Johnson wrote in Friends of God and Prophets: “Saints are those who have drawn so close to the center of the circle that Uncreated Light streams through them into the world. And the closer people draw to them, the closer they get to the divine, and understanding that nourishes a resurgence of interest in the saints.”

All Saints Day, that feast of “splendid nobodies” as Johnson called it, is a liturgical holiday that calls us to remember those who have gone before and to give thanks. This day came into being after the calendar was already filled up with days honoring varied saints. Nov. 1 became the day to celebrate the lives of all Christians, known and unknown.

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, in Johnson’s words, a “Christian symbol that speaks of profound relationship.”

When we confess this, however, we are not simply remembering those “whose rest is won.” The primary way the New Testament spoke of “saints” was of the community of living Christians whose lives were marked by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

It is through communion with God and with one another that we are formed for life everlasting. Sirach 44:1-10 offers a hymn of praise in honor of ancestors, and the text exhorts us to live so as to “leave behind a name.”

Life is ephemeral enough, and without holy living, one is not likely to be remembered. Together with those who have gone before, we comprise a community of both memory and hope, truly becoming what God has named us.

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