Let us stipulate that God seems very far from the commercial extravaganza that now surrounds Halloween. I am much more likely to find God on the other side of Halloween, on November 1st, when we observe All Saints’ Day. All Saints’ Day is a day to remember all of the saints who have passed through our lives into the next.
At my home parish in New York City, St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, the liturgy on the Sunday following November 1st usually commemorates All Saints’ Day. It manages to be both somber and celebratory.
Members of the parish who have died since the last celebration of All Saints’ Day are remembered in our prayers. In a big city church, it is easy for one to be anonymous and feel forgotten. Reading the names of the deceased cuts through the anonymity. As each name is read, I think about that person—who they were, who they loved, who they touched in their journey on earth and the people they left behind.
Almost without fail we sing the great hymn, “For all the Saints” set to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ stirring tune, Sine Nomine. The opening lines of the second to last verse: “But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day; The saints triumphant rise in bright array” make my heart leap with joy. The hymn is filled with the hopefulness that God asks of all of us in our journey through this life into the next.
One of the most powerful observances of All Saints’ Day in which I have participated was last year when I was visiting my wife’s family in Waterloo, Canada, not far from Toronto.
On the Sunday of our visit we all went to St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. It also happened to be the Sunday immediately following the death of my grandmother at the age of 107, so I was especially open to God’s presence in my life.
What I found most powerful about the service was how the community came together to hold each person in love. During the liturgy there was a time set aside when anyone who wished could come forward and place a candle at the front of the church in memory of someone who had died. It was a simple and unadorned gesture. As each of us came forward, the dignity, respect, and love offered by the congregation was a true expression of God’s presence amongst us.
As I approached the front of the church with a candle to honor my grandmother, I found that I could pray the Nunc Dimittis, with new understanding: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.”
May all who have died rest in peace and rise in glory.
Who will you remember this All Saints’ Day?