Yesterday was All Saints’ Day. The day we remember those men and women who were given grace not only to touch the lives immediately around them, but to have a bigger impact, to inspire others across a greater length and breadth through time and place. Legendary lives.
And perhaps also a good day to be reminded that in the Church, we are all saints – and all sinners:
reminded, when we have convinced ourselves that we are all saint, and that those brothers and sisters we disagree with are all sinner;
reminded, when we have convinced ourselves that we, in the mess of our broken lives, are all sinner, and that our brothers and sisters are paper saints.
We are all stained-glass saints: fragile, yet crafted, like glass; the impurities that stain us transformed into beauty by the light…
Today is All Soul’s Day, or the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed. The day we remember those men and women who were part of our own local community – many of whom surround our church buildings as they await the resurrection of the dead – and those we have known personally, who encouraged us on our pilgrimage and who have gone on ahead of us for now.
People talk to the dead. I don’t mean through a medium, at a séance. I mean people visiting the grave of a loved one, telling them news of family members; or the widowed, used to having a partner with whom to work things through, sat in a quiet place continuing a habit formed over years.
And many Christians, in particular many evangelical Christians, don’t know what to make of that. At worst, some think it wrong, dangerous, superstition that leads us away from truth; at best, unnecessary: why talk to the dead when you can talk to Jesus? they ask, seemingly oblivious to the irony that Jesus has passed through death…
But that is to fail to grasp what it means to be part of the Church (as we all do, in many ways). Heaven and earth are not two kept-apart realms, but two realms brought together in the person of Jesus. And if – this is a mystery – I am with Jesus, and if – again, a mystery – the faithful departed are with Jesus, then – mystery – we are together in him. And it is the most natural thing in the world to speak with those we love when we are together.
Just as prayer is conversation with the Father, through the Son and in the power of the Holy Spirit; and as we pray, we may sense the Father speaking to us, prompting us, guiding us; so we can talk with those we have loved and who have gone before us, in the Father’s love, through the mercy of the Son and in the power of the Holy Spirit; and as we talk, may sense their thoughts on whatever is on our mind.
What lies beyond death? We don’t know, exactly. The Presbyterian writer Henry van Dyke wrote these lines (did they inspire CS Lewis’ Narnia?):
‘I am standing upon the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength. I stand and watch her until at length she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other. Then someone at my side says: “There, she is gone!” “Gone where?” Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side and she is just as able to bear the load of living freight to her destined port. Her diminished size is in me, not in her. And just at the moment when someone at my side says: “There, she is gone!” there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices ready to take up the glad shout: “Here she comes!” and that is dying.’
That image beautifully expresses something within the breadth of Christian understanding. And yet elsewhere within our traditions is a rich heritage that would say the ocean is not a barrier; that word can travel from shore to shore.
So this All Soul’s Day, as well as giving thanks for those whom we have loved and no longer see for now, why not thank them for their faithfulness, to us as well as Christ?
And next time someone talks to you, quite matter-of-fact, about the most recent conversation they have had with someone who has passed through death, listen with an open mind, and heart…