Good morning, Saints of Christ Church Cathedral! That’s what you are. If we were living in the first century, and St. Paul were to write us a letter, Paul would address it “to the saints of downtown Houston.” This recognition is an important corrective to the popular notion of saints, which says that saints are only those who perform miracles or have stigmata on their hands. Not so. In the days of the apostles, “saint” was synonymous with “Christian.” To be a follower of Jesus was to be a saint. Well, it is All Saints Sunday, and I say to you good morning, Saints of Christ Church Cathedral!
I love All Saints Sunday. I especially love the first scripture reading on All Saints, which each year includes an option from the Apocrypha, that oft-ignored portion of the scriptures sandwiched between the Old and New Testaments. Some years, though not this one, we read a passage from Ecclesiasticus, which praises great saints and heroes, both secular and faithful, but then says, “of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them.”[i]
How sad is that? It is tragic, that so many from past generations have lived well but been completely forgotten as though they’d never been born. Sorrow compounds when we realize that this will be the fate of most of us. All we need do is walk through old Texas graveyards and wonder at the crooked stones whose names have been erased by weather and time to know this. We will become, at best, the portrait on a descendant’s wall three generations hence, of whom someone says, “I think he may have been my great, great grandfather, but I’m not sure.”
Are we Shakespeare’s brief candles from MacBeth, walking shadows who “strut and fret [our] hour upon the stage and then [are] heard no more”?[ii]
Well today, on this All Saints Sunday, we read from another great text from the Apocrypha, the Book of Wisdom, which gives us a different perspective. Wisdom says this:
The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment will ever touch them.
In the eyes of the foolish they seem to have died,
and their departure thought to be a disaster,
and their going from us to be their destruction;
[But it is not so] They are at peace.
The Book of Wisdom says that it is foolish, nihilistic, and untrue not only to believe that anyone is forgotten, but even to believe that any have truly died. The saints only seem to have died. The world seems to have chewed them up and destroyed both their lives and their memory, but it is not so. The saints live on in the very hand of God. They know a peace of which we only glimpse on the earth.
I believe this. I believe that the dead are not dead and that they live, that the saints of countless generations abide in and with God. I believe it because the ancient Church Fathers believed it.[iii] I believe it because Dante believed it in the Paradiso. I believe it because our boldest contemporary theologians believe it.[iv] And, friends, I believe it because at this point in my priesthood I have heard more stories that I can discount of those who have sensed the presence of those they love who have left this world.
The saints are not forgotten, and they surely are not lost, because they live across the threshold in what the Church once commonly called larger life. But do they impact us now? Put another way, are we still in relationship with the saints of the past, including the people we have loved? The Book of Wisdom has something to say about this, too. Wisdom says:
In the time of their visitation, [The saints] will shine forth,
and they will run like sparks through the stubble…
Rather than Shakespeare’s brief candles quickly snuffed, Wisdom says, the saints now live in God as sparks of divine light, and they can shine so brightly with God’s grace that they are known to us. They make visitation. But what does that look like?
In the novel Remembering[v], Andy Catlett, a discontented man who moves through the world like one of Shakespeare’s walking shadows, one day takes a walk through the woods and hollows surrounding his home town. As he crests the ridge that overlooks the town, everything is transformed. The veil between this world and the next becomes porous, and divine light shines through. The story picks up this way (and listen with care):
“Andy looks and sees…the signs…of a longer love than any who have lived there have ever imagined…Over town and fields the one great song sings, and is answered everywhere. And in the fields and the town, walking, standing, or sitting under the trees, resting and talking together in the peace of a sabbath profound and bright, are people of such beauty that [Andy] weeps to see them. He sees that these are the membership of one another and of the place and of the song or light in which they live and move.
[Andy] sees that they are the dead, and they are alive. He sees that he lives in eternity as he lives in time, and nothing is lost. Among the people of that town, he sees men and women he remembers, and men and women remembered in memories he remembers, and they do not look as he ever saw or imagined them. The young are no longer young, nor the old old. They appear as children corrected and clarified; they have the luminous vividness of new grass after fire. And yet they are mature as ripe fruit. And yet they are flowers. All of them are flowers.”
Andy Catlett has encountered the saints, some known and some forgotten by him, but none forgotten to God. They are luminous, as the love that is the realest of all things shines through them. And the encounter changes Andy. The novel goes on:
“Grieved as he may be to leave them…[Andy] must go back with his help, such as it is, and offer it. He has come into the presence of these living by a change of sight… Their names singing in his mind.”
By a change of sight, Andy Catlett sees the saints. He re-members them, even those he never knew, which is to say he recognizes that they, and he, are knit together by God’s love that can never be sundered by time, or death, or the failure of memory.
This account is fiction, but as I said a few minutes ago, I have heard enough stories of wonder from you and others about your encounters with the saints that I say it is nevertheless true.
That, I believe, is the key for us this All Saints Sunday. We are invited to have a change of sight, to see the world as a place infinitely more nuanced and layered than we have imagined, a place in which the saints we have known and loved and the saints we have forgotten are alive and are still connected to us. They can shine so brightly that the love through which they now live can be known to us, they can make their visitation in ways that are incredibly subtle or incredibly overt, restoring our souls with the promise that, in God, nothing is lost. Sometimes, when I am in the Cathedral alone and in the quiet, I think I almost see them: those generations of saints who have been born, and baptized, and wed, and died in this sacred space. Their light surely shines, and I feel it.
Good morning, Saints of Christ Church Cathedral! May you know the joy of all the saints this day.
[i] Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10, 13-14
[ii] Shakespeare, William. MacBeth, Act 5, scene 5
[iii] See especially Origen.
[iv] See John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World.
[v] Berry, Wendell. Remembering. Counterpoint: Bekeley, CA, 2008.