Sunday, November 1, 2009

Considering All Saints Day

I'm not going to church this morning. I guess I'm boycotting All Saints Day. Growing up as a Baptist, I certainly didn't mark the day—it was a discovery of later years that Hallow-e'en was the eve of something called All Saints Day. The Baptist church that I attend now is a lot more ecumenical than the one I attended as a child, and today includes a celebration of All Saints' Day, perhaps a piece of high church that we've adopted, but frankly it is not one that makes sense to me, either liturgically, theologically, psychologically or historically. It will include lighting candles and naming the names of the dead, whom people name as saints. The wide variety of saints may include Martin Luther King Jr., Julian of Norwich, Mother Teresa, Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, St. Francis and someone's grandmother or brother. But that seems a mish-mash and today as I stay home, I'm attempting to figure out why it bothers me.

I understand the need to grieve and I do note those anniversaries, birthdays and death dates, of those I still grieve, and it's true that Protestant church ritual, unlike Jewish ritual, does not have a regular place for it. So perhaps this is intended to fill that need for some. Jews say the Mourner's Kaddish as a part of every Friday evening service, and mark the
Yahrzeit (anniversaries) of those who died. Interestingly, the Mourner's Kaddish does not speak of the dead or of death, but of God and of life.
Although Kaddish contains no reference to death, it has become the prayer for mourners to say. One explanation is that it is an expression of acceptance of Divine judgment and righteousness at a time when a person may easily become bitter and reject God. Another explanation is that by sanctifying God's name in public, the mourners increase the merit of the deceased person. Kaddish is a way in which children can continue to show respect and concern for their parents even after they have died.

The opening words,
yitgadal t'yitkadash, were inspired by Ezekiel 38:23 when the prophet envisions a time when God will become great in the eyes of all the nations. The response of the listeners to the first lines of the mourners is a public declaration of the belief that God is great and holy: Yehei Shmei rabba mevorakh l'olam ul'almei almaya (May His great Name be blessed forever and ever). This response is central to the Kaddish and should be said out loud.
I understand the need for rituals around mourning—Jewish rabbinical tradition really has provided much for us to consider in this regard, yet I think that their weekly prayer as a community with all those who mourn for the dead is not the same as remembering the dead—it's being with those who are alive and grieving. That is what makes Kaddish useful and powerful, and is perhaps the kind of ritual and liturgy we might adapt in Protestant churches. The Beatitudes come to mind, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted…"

Having grown up in the American Southwest, I was somewhat aware of the Mexican celebration on this day:
El Día de los Muertos, but since it seemed a part of the prevalent Mexican Catholicism I didn't realize until later its much older roots in the history of the Aztec peoples of Mexico.
More than 500 years ago, when the Spanish Conquistadors landed in what is now Mexico, they encountered natives practicing a ritual that seemed to mock death. It was a ritual the indigenous people had been practicing at least 3,000 years. A ritual the Spaniards would try unsuccessfully to eradicate. A ritual known today as Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. …

Unlike the Spaniards, who viewed death as the end of life, the natives viewed it as the continuation of life. Instead of fearing death, they embraced it. To them, life was a dream and only in death did they become truly awake.

"The pre-Hispanic people honored duality as being dynamic," said Christina Gonzalez, senior lecturer on Hispanic issues at Arizona State University. "They didn't separate death from pain, wealth from poverty like they did in Western cultures."
This seems similar in expression to the healthy psychology around mourning of the Jewish tradition—death is with us, and we need to celebrate life and the holy.

In the Roman Catholic tradition
All Saints Day began as a commemoration of those who died as martyrs.
It is instituted to honour all the saints, known and unknown, and, according to Urban IV, to supply any deficiencies in the faithful's celebration of saints' feasts during the year.

In the early days the Christians were accustomed to solemnize the anniversary of a martyr's death for Christ at the place of martyrdom. In the fourth century, neighbouring dioceses began to interchange feasts, to transfer relics, to divide them, and to join in a common feast; as is shown by the invitation of St. Basil of Caesarea (397) to the bishops of the province of Pontus. Frequently groups of martyrs suffered on the same day, which naturally led to a joint commemoration.

In the persecution of Diocletian the number of martyrs became so great that a separate day could not be assigned to each. But the Church, feeling that every martyr should be venerated, appointed a common day for all. The first trace of this we find in Antioch on the Sunday after Pentecost. We also find mention of a common day in a sermon of St. Ephrem the Syrian (373), and in the 74th homily of St. John Chrysostom (407). At first only martyrs and St. John the Baptist were honoured by a special day. Other saints were added gradually, and increased in number when a regular process of canonization was established; still, as early as 411 there is in the Chaldean Calendar a "
Commemoratio Confessorum" for the Friday after Easter.
Remembering people who were martyred for the faith seems different to me than just remembering the dead or those who are "saints." Canonization of saints is yet another thing I don't quite get theologically as a Baptist; saints in the hierarchy of communication with God not being part of the premise of the priesthood of all believers that is a central Baptist tenet. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Protestant Reformation started on the eve of All Saints Day because the veneration of the saints was one of the things that had gotten entirely out of hand in medieval Catholic Europe.

Among the Reformed Protestant church traditions (Lutherans, Presbyterians and other Calvinists)
Reformation Day is marked on October 31 as the anniversary of when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517.
The fact that Reformation Day coincides with Halloween may not be mere coincidence. Halloween, being the Eve of All Saints' Day might have been an entirely appropriate day for Luther to post his 95 Theses against indulgences since the castle church would be open on All Saints' Day specifically for people to view a large collection of relics. The viewing of these relics was said to promise a reduction in time in purgatory similar to that of the purchase of an indulgence. Dr. Luther may have been shrewd in his choice of that day to post his theses.
It thus seems somewhat curious to continue celebrating All Saints Day in the Reformed tradition…perhaps my Lutheran and Presbyterian friends can help me out on the theological basis of this? Certainly Calvin did not believe in the veneration of the saints, and lies in an unmarked grave so that his relics could not be so celebrated.

Christians who are less closely tied to the Reformed traditions think of saints and the Reformation differently. This excerpt from an online
"American Christian" history lesson remembers the Reformation and defines saints.
In October folks with widely differing points of view celebrate widely differing events. Some celebrate Hallowe'en/All Saints Day with its emphasis on goblins, witches, and other such beings. Those who celebrate the Reformation honor saints as defined by Scripture: "...the saints and faithful in Christ which are at Colossi..." (Colossians 1:2) One of those saints/Christians was Professor Martin Luther. What did he have to do with us that we celebrate October 31st as "Reformation Day"?

One hundred years after God used Wycliff to awaken men to the realization that the Word of God should be the foundation for men's lives rather than the proclamations of the Church of Rome, another man, this time a German priest, Martin Luther, arose to refute the heresy that men's salvation came through the church and "good works" rather than "by grace through faith and that not of ourselves." Luther, too, translated the Word of God into the language of the people.
While this is simplistic, it may be deeper knowledge than most American Christians have about this part of our history. For the Christians who take only the Bible as the focal point of Christianity, and I hesitate to call them Protestants because they are fairly well removed from the historical knowledge or thread of the Protestant Reformation, the point of the Reformation was that people gained access to reading the scriptures themselves. Saints are "the faithful in Christ."

I have to confess that my own childhood understanding of saints would perhaps fall in this vein. "Saints" was not a singular proper/capitalized noun; we were collectively lower-case saints or sinners. "She's a saint," might be an exclamation about someone who did something very kind, but not often, because we understood that human foibles precluded that title for most of us. Thankfully, outside of fire and brimstone sermons, sinner was equally infrequently used in everyday language.

When I looked up Baptists and saints, I found this: Among the
primary distinctives of the Southern Baptist denomination is this view of saints:
Perseverance of the Saints - Baptists do not believe that true believers will fall away and, thereby, lose their salvation. This is sometimes called, "Once saved, always saved." The proper term, however, is the final perseverance of the saints. It means that real Christians stick with it. It doesn't mean the believer won't stumble, but refers to an inward pull that will not allow him to quit the faith.
Well, I am a Baptist, if not a Southern Baptist, but am not quite so creedal. If I persevere, it is God's grace that sustains me, not some amorphous "inward pull." But perhaps all saints day for me is really just not a useful, separate, annual celebration. If I am a saint, although I would never call myself that, but I mean that since I am a faithful believer in the teachings of Jesus Christ, I need to recognize and celebrate that every day, not once a year. Since in our lives as a community we need to be with those who mourn, then let us do that more often and more intentionally in our community rituals and gatherings. Since we need to remember our history and our stories, let us make time to remember those people whose lives have contributed to ours. Each of these are important enough that we should not mush them together on this one day of the year and otherwise forget that we are faithful believers, that those who mourn are always with us, and that people's lives and stories are important to us all of the year.

That also means of course that we wouldn't have to save this great song for one day a year either! (text by Lesbia Scott, adapted, from the
New Century Hymnal #295)
I sing a song of the saints of God,
Faithful their whole lives through,
Who bravely labored, lived, and died
For the God they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor, and one was a queen,
And another a shepherd in pastures green;
They were saints of God, if you know what I mean,
God, help me to be one too.

They loved their God and they lived that love.
It was loving that made them strong.
They did what was right, for Jesus' sake,
Lived justly their whole lives long.
And one was a prophet, and one was a priest,
And another was slain by a fierce wild beast;
There's no earthly reason, none in the least,
Why I shouldn't be one, too.

They lived not only in ages past;
There are hundreds of thousands still.
The world is filled with living saints
Who choose to do God's will.
You can meet them in school, on the road, at sea,
In church, in a train, in a shop, or at tea;
For the saints are folk like you and like me,
And I mean to be one, too.
Blessings on us all, non-saints and saints alike.

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