The celebration of All Saints is, hands down, my favorite Sunday of the year. Not the Sunday before Christmas, not Easter, not Epiphany or any other, but All Saints. As the preacher of the day, I always want to capture this elusive feeling/image/sense I have of the day – something glowing, radiant; Ralph Vaughan Williams, gold and white, a packed house with nary a dry eye. Rarely does it come together that way, but we can have our aspirations.
The church I grew up in didn’t celebrate All Saints; few Protestant churches did in the ’70s and ’80s. My first experience of the holy day was at seminary, when in the chapel service a list of the dead was read and in the Latin American tradition, after each name was pronounced we all shouted, “Presente!” They are present. The saints have left, and haven’t.
This year, it’s a ten-day celebration of saints for me. It began last Saturday with a memorial service-ish for someone I’d never met, a woman who was not particularly Christian any more, whose friends filled just about every nook and cranny in our sanctuary (which seats around 500.) Last night, I led our evening worship service, borrowing elements from the Day of the Dead tradition. People were invited to bring photos of their beloveds who had died, or to write their names on a card, and to take the photos and cards to the communion table and decorate them with flowers and candles and chocolate and other things. Last night was no glowing, white and gold majestic thing. It was colorful, vivid, as down-to-earth as you can be while singing accompanied by guitar and accordion.
This coming Saturday I’ll preside over another memorial service, for a young woman who was a member of our congregation whom I knew a little. She was murdered a few weeks ago, having fallen in with the wrong sort. Shot in the head after a night at a strip club, she died alone in the middle of the night. I want to throw up, and scream, and go back in time to save her. But I can’t. What I can do is offer a place for her varied group of friends to come and remember her, to testify to the good and to the mess of her life, to build a community so that, at least for a few hours, some light will shine in the darkness that surrounds her death.
And then there’s this Sunday, my favorite, golden and gleaming (maybe). Good hymns, good liturgy, the roll of the deceased read and the opportunity to name loved ones who are gone. Communion, too. I love it, and hope to do it justice but know that really, that’s not up to me but the Spirit who usually does show up when She’s invited, and often shows up when She’s not.
Why do I love it, this day that can be so sad? I can’t get through “For All the Saints” when we sing that line, “through gates of pearl stream in the countless host.” Why do I love it? I think because it’s a thin place, All Saints Day. Earth and heaven breathe on each other like a mother and child snuggling at bedtime. It’s a thin line between the living and the dying, because all of us who are alive still face the mystery of death, and because those who have died linger among us in their gifts and legacies, and their eerie presence that we still feel at unexpected times.
All Saints Sunday is coming, and I am glad for that. In the meantime, there is a memorial service to plan and, I just learned, another one after that. There are committee meetings to prep for, and a poetry class that starts this Sunday. There’s a newsletter article to write, and one last pumpkin to carve at home. I might even put up a few cobwebs for Halloween, and I still need to buy candy.
In the meantime, life happens as it happened for all the saints. We feebly struggle, they in glory shine. That’s what I’m counting on, when my meantime ends and that thin line is crossed.