Thankfully at the End of a Long Line: Epistle 11.03.11

Thankfully at the End of a Long Line: Epistle 11.03.11

“I see dead people that walk around like regular people.” That iconic line from M. Night Shyamalan’s movie The Sixth Sense was about living people who had a gift: seeing the dead, but also helping free them for their “after lives.” The movie suggested that unfinished business from their mortal lives can tether the dead to the world of the living.

“I see dead people” could also be an apt caption of the Christian holiday of All Saints, November 1 in the West that we will celebrate in worship this coming Sunday, Nov. 6.

Like many Christian holidays, All Saints has antecedents in pagan celebrations which it supplanted, the Roman holiday of Lemures and the Celtic holiday of Samhain. Both were occasions for propitiating malevolent and restless souls of the deceased.

Technically, in Roman Catholicism, All Saints Day is a commemoration of those who have been beatified — Mary and the pantheon of the martyrs first among the Saints (capital “S”). The following day in the Catholic church’s calendar, All Souls, remembers everyone else in heaven and those in purgatory on their way to heaven.

In Protestant theology, without beatified Saints (capital “S”), all Christians are considered saints, per the New Testament usage of that word as a synonym for those who “by grace are the faithful.” And without purgatory, we don’t need the two days to remember any hierarchy in route to heaven.

So a Protestant All Saints Days is a day for remembering Christians who have died alongside of those who are still working at living out their faith.

I’m not sure if this is a more widely help Protestant belief, or just my own conclusion, but All Souls Day — in theology that assumes God’s will to save is more important than the rituals of the church — is the day when we remember the sacredness of non-Christians who have already died as well as those who are still living. …Maybe I just deduced that from the preponderance of historical Universalist and Unitarian congregations named All Souls!

All these interpretations of these holy days point to a helpful spiritual bond between the living and the dead. In “The Sixth Sense,” the living could help the dead with unfinished business of their lives. But in Christian faith, that equation is reversed: the ones who have gone before help those who are still here with the unfinished business of living. The dead help us find more life in our lives!

Folks today often have trouble imagining an afterlife. And Old First is the kind of church where some people count eternity integral to their faith, while others believe we only have this life.

But the Christian teaching about this cloud of witnesses is a counter-cultural, alternative vision: rather than as lonely as existence can sometimes feel, God’s holding everyone of us too sacred for us to cease to be also means that somehow creation also embraces the dead.

Yes, each of us has his or her journey– as the middle verse of “Jesus Walked this Lonesome Valley” mourns:

We must walk this lonesome valley,
We have to walk it by ourselves;
O, nobody else can walk it for us,
We have to walk it by ourselves.

But a whole cloud of witnesses has made a way for us. And surrounds us all our way — is still somehow present for us. Oh, not in some literal sense, like they can whisper insider trading secrets in your ear. But, at least for me… maybe this isn’t very Protestant of me… I kind of imagine them, at the least, they are there in heaven offering prayers of intercession for our well-being. And from time to time, I feel a presence even closer…

This week, remember and give thanks for how lives lived before us have left inheritances that continue to benefit us… by the testaments of their faith, or specific ways their actions or learnings enrich our lives. (I think of the whole month of November as the gratitude season at the end of Pentecost!) Who are those without whom, though they have already died, you find you could not enjoy the life you live?

See you in church,
Michael

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