All Saints’ and All Souls’: love reaches through and beyond death to eternal life with God

Mary Copping, 31 October 2021

Wisdom 3: 1–9; Revelation 21: 1–6a; John 11: 32–44

Today we celebrate All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day – the day when we honour those who have died, the day we remember our dear departed loved ones as well as the saints of the Church.

Apparently the tradition originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated 1 November as a time to honour all saints. Soon, All Saints’ Day incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain. People visited the graves of their ancestors. And as an addition to that, people began to think of the night before All Saints’ Day as All Hallowed Eve – when they thought of ghosts and goblins roaming the earth. Thus Hallowe’en, when children will go round in costumes knocking on doors and saying ‘trick or treat’, an American custom that’s come over here. Some churches these days hold alternatives to this dark and sometimes frightening custom, frightening especially to elderly people. They hold ‘light parties’ where children and families are invited to come and play games and just enjoy good fun and good food together – that’s a great idea and one we may pick up, focusing on the light of Christ and not the darkness of the world.

For us this celebration is a time to remember and celebrate those lives, well known or not, of those who have gone before us. It marks a loving and good time, whatever people may believe about the life after this one. All of us, and especially through this Covid time, will know someone close to us who has died or know of someone who has died, or someone who has died in years past. All Souls’ is a time to give thanks for their lives, giving thanks to God that they are now in his nearer presence. In our All Souls’ service this afternoon we will be doing just that; please come if you can.

The revelation of St John gives a wonderful picture of the life beyond our dying – ‘death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more’. Sometimes I am asked at funeral visits what I think heaven might be like. I answer honestly that I don’t really know, but I do know it will be a place of love and light and joy in God’s presence. Someone I knew, who was afraid they might get bored in heaven sitting at God’s feet all day, hoped that it would consist of perfect work, perfect leisure, perfect joy. He’s now there and I’m sure he’s not bored.

When we think of saints there may come to mind a picture of a person in an ancient costume with a halo around their head, as shown on stained glass windows or in icons. Yet St Paul, in his letters, often referred to the Christian people in the churches he was writing to as the saints – as at the beginning of his letter to the Ephesians, when he says, ‘Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are at Ephesus and who are faithful in Christ Jesus’.

There’s the story of a boy visiting a church with his father. As they walked in, the young boy looked around and was curious about the stained glass windows that looked so beautiful with their bright colours. As he looked at the windows, he asked, ‘Who are all these people in the windows, Daddy?’ ‘They are saints’, said his father. ‘What are saints, Daddy?’ the boy asked. The father wondered how he was going to explain who saints were to his four-year-old son. As the boy was looking up at the windows and the father was still wondering how he would explain who saints are, the young boy shouted out, ‘I know who saints are, Daddy. They are the people that the light shines through.’

What a wonderful description of saints. We all as Christians are saints – not the perfect kind; which saint has ever been perfect? – but the kind that the light shines through when we serve God in our communities, show kindness and generosity to those in need, when we listen to each other, when we forgive one another, when we support and help each other, as we do in this church community. This is when the light shines through us and when we are Christ’s saints – when we allow the love of God to shine.

We all as Christians are saints – not the perfect kind; which saint has ever been perfect? – but the kind that the light shines through when we serve God in our communities.

In our gospel reading Jesus’ best friend Lazarus has died, and this is one of the very few times when we hear that Jesus began to weep. In the verses just before our gospel reading, we are told that as Jesus approached the house and saw Martha and saw her sorrow, he said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never die.’ These verses are often read at funeral services and give the hope and the certainty that we have in Christ: that death is not the end, that love reaches through and beyond death to eternal life with God. Easter and the resurrection of Jesus promise us life everlasting and being held safe in the love of God.

And while we are here on earth we remember the saints, people who have gone before us. In the letter to the Hebrews, after talking about the many saints such as Abraham, Moses, Joshua and many others named in the Old Testament, it says, ‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses … let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us’ (12: 1). Wonderful to imagine a cloud of saints surrounding us, geeing us on, supporting and helping us and rooting for us, as a crowd rooting for runners in a race.

One of my favourite saints is St Francis of Assisi, who was born to a rich family but gave up all he had to be with the poor and to tell people about the love of Jesus. The saints give us encouragement in our Christian lives. Their lives are ones of sacrifice and struggle and obedience to God, and they challenge us in our lives and how we live as saints. But as St Paul describes, we are all saints and live our lives as followers of Christ in whatever way we can.

As we sometimes hear at the Offertory in services, ‘Let your light so shine before men (and women) that they may see your good works and glorify your Father, who is in heaven’. We are people who the light shines through. Amen.