Every time you read something in the Bible it says something to you right there in that moment. And since every moment for us is different from another, when we read that same reading again it will say something different to us.
That is how I understand that great saying that the Word of God is dynamic, sharper than a two-edged sword, penetrating to the soul. It is not static like some people believe with no room for variation in meaning. It speaks daily into the constantly changing circumstances of my life.
When I read the passage from Revelation that you have heard today I have to say that it took on new dimensions of meaning for me. Here I am in this place surrounded by these my new Nuba friends, who themselves have been through the great trial because of their faith. And each one of them knows someone who has come to the end of their life here because of that great trial.
And there they stand, among that great throng of witness from every tribe and nation and tongue – praising God in Nuba and Arabic, and Dinka, and Swahili, and Korean, and English …. These are faces familiar to us. Faces of those known to us.
And then we read the beginning of what we call The Sermon on the Mount. This wonderful collection of the teaching of Jesus begins with 8 beatitudes. When we read these on a normal Sunday they speak to us of God’s purpose that those who are having a hard time in one way or another will ultimately be blessed – or happy. I remember Robert Schuller of Crystal Cathedral fame wrote a book about these called The Be-Happy Attitudes, in which he expounded these statements as expressing something of how we should choose to live.
But reading them today they speak so eloquently of the various dimensions of our future reward – a life that is intimately connected to God and in which we will all be called Blessed – not just the Virgin Mary.
So, here we are at All Souls Day, following on immediately after All Saints Day. What can we learn from these signature Holy Days in the life of the church?
Let me first clarify some terms.
What do you think of when we speak of Saints? The people with “Saint” at the beginning of their names, like St Francis? Well, many of us do, and in many respects the celebration of All Saints Day seems to be focussed on those kinds of saints – I call them super-hero saints because they all seem to have done super-human things in the form of various miracles and mysteries.
But there are places in the Scriptures, especially in the letters of Paul, where all the members of the church are called saints. Now I can relate to those kinds of saints. Let me tell you a story:
One day a Sunday school class in a Ukrainian Orthodox Church was discussing the topics of sainthood and saints. The children were riveted to the teacher’s presentation, as they listened to the wondrous miracles and acts of personal sacrifice which were associated with the saints. As the presentation ended, it was time for the children to ask questions. All but one child asked a question and received their answer from the teacher. Little Suzy was the only child who sat silently in her chair looking around with a puzzled look on her face. Suzy was normally quite vocal and had opinions about everything, but she sat there silently listening to what the other students had to say. For homework, the teacher asked the students to answer the following questions - who are the saints and what does it take for someone to attain sainthood? But before class was dismissed, the teacher took the children to their church next door to show them the icons of the saints they had just talked about.
It was a bright sunny day, when the class entered the church. The children began to walk around and look closely at the icons placed on stands, painted on the iconostasis screen behind which was the Altar and painted on the walls of the church. But Suzy wasn’t paying any attention to that, instead she was standing in the middle of the church mesmerized and consumed by something else. Her eyes were fixated on the beautiful stain-glass windows. The bright sunshine was piercing through them creating a sparkle of different colours with an unbelievable brilliance of the images of the saints depicted there. Suddenly, little Suzy raised her hand and excitedly yelled out: “I know who saints are! They are the people who let the light of God shine through them!”
This definition means that we all qualify as saints. But it also describes what it is about us that makes us saints – we let the light of God shine through us.
This leads to one of the things that I would like to remember about All Saints Day, and perhaps you will too. The Saints of God is a collective term for the community to which we all belong – the Church.
When an Orthodox person walks alone into a church they are visibly surrounded by this vast cloud of witnesses who have gone before them. They know that they are never alone. They know that they cannot be the church by themselves. The community and our connection to it is a vital dimension of our everyday saintliness.
But today is actually All Soul’s Day – so perhaps we should discuss this business of Soul for a moment. In the old fashioned language of the Anglican Church, when a priest was appointed to a parish the bishop gave the priest a very special responsibility – the cure of the souls entrusted to him. This was the result of a decision to transliterate a Latin term rather than translate it. It simply means the CARE OF SOULS. And in this context, souls means the whole person.
A lot of theological debate has been expended on the idea that we are made up of three parts – body, soul and spirit. While we might get some sense of the differentiation that is being made, most of us end up still wondering what it all means. The truth of this idea is that it is actually foreign to Hebrew thinkers. It is a Greek notion and it underpins the same kind of theological argument in the Nicene Creed about the coexistence of flesh and spirit – humanity and divinity – in Jesus. For our purposes and in the modern era I would think it is much simpler for us to simply understand souls in the pastoral and nautical sense (the ship went down with 95 souls on board) – the whole person.
In its original institution, All Soul’s Day was a time to pray for the Dead. A thousand years ago there was only the Roman Catholic Church and with their teachings about Purgatory, people in the church were encouraged to pray for the souls in Purgatory to hasten their arrival in Paradise. We in the Anglican Church did away with this doctrine as did many other churches that emerged from the Protestant Reformation.
This brings me to the second thing that I want to remember out of these two Holy Days. If I was to reframe the Saints of All Saint’s Day as the Big Saints – the CAPITAL “S” Saints; the ones with Saint before their name, and the Souls of All Soul’s Day as the everyday saints – the lower case “s” saints; the ones without the word Saint in their name. These two days are days to be thankful to God for all those who have gone before us, whose lives and stories have inspired and encouraged us in our faith.
In truth, none of us would be here without those who have gone before us. So, on this Holy Day, let us all think of those whose lives have drawn us towards faith, have sustained and encouraged us in the faith, and who inspire us daily to live lives that are increasingly Christ-like.