The Feast of All Saints
+ IN NOMINE IESU +
We celebrate All Saints by reading the names of our dead from the past year. We read those names to remember and to thank God for the mercy He gave to them while they lived and in delivering them from this vale of tears to Himself in heaven. This practice makes sense to Lutherans because All Saints is the liturgical commemoration of all the people who have gone to heaven. Since we don’t believe in Purgatory, but rather that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has forgiven all the sins of those who believe in Him and won heaven for them, free and clear, that means every Christian who has ever died is already in heaven. There is no intermediate state, nothing left to pay off or make up for. The grace of God in Christ is complete for all of original and actual sins. So for us that must mean that All Saints doesn’t only include those heroes of the faith who lived extraordinary lives but it includes all who confessed the Name of Jesus. That is what “all” of All Saints means. And that means that our own loved ones who have preceded us with the sign of faith are in the great company.
Our people are in heaven. Their souls are there waiting for their bodies and for us. And our people are mixing with John’s people and with the great heroes.
In the first place John’s vision was meant to bring him comfort. He was an old man, dying a slow death, alone, exiled on Patmos. His apostolic comrades had all been martyred and many of his own flock, those whom he had baptized, confirmed, and even ordained had been martyred, but not John. He was still alive, denied the glory given to so many of his loved ones, forced to carry on without them. The Church was small and seemed to be on the edge of oblivion. There wasn’t a single cathedral and probably not even a single building whose sole purpose was worship. Those who escaped martyrdom were few and poor and many were falling away.
So the Lord in His mercy gave John a vision of the end. He not only saw the horrific events of the end, but he also saw all the saints gathered around the Lamb. He saw the men and women and children who had lived in the 5000 or so years between Adam and Christ, all those who had eagerly waited for the Messiah who would come and sacrifice Himself in their stead, who would pay for their sins and reconcile them to the Father. They waited and trusted that God would provide. They were saved by faith. Many of them were his heroes: Moses and Isaiah, Noah and Ezekiel. But John also saw His fellow apostles and St. Mary, his father and mother, and all those who lived in those turbulent days of the Messiah’s death who trusted in Christ. He saw his own flock, those whom he had baptized and catechized. He saw all those who were in heaven while he was on Patmos and it was a great crowd numbering in the millions.
This probably would have been enough to comfort him in his lonely days, but he saw more. For his was a vision of the future and the end. He saw the whole church, all the elect, which no man could number, from every tribe, nation, and language – many of which didn’t exist in the time of John. And that means that John also saw all the saints who would read and hear his vision and be comforted by it. He saw your loved ones gathered around the Lamb and he saw you.
Here is the point, both for John and for us: at any given moment, the church on earth is frail and dying, under attack from without and within, but viewed from the Divine perspective in eternity all is well and the Church is in no real danger. It is finished. The Victory is His and no one will snatch His children out of His hand. This comforted John, let it comfort you as well.
So we remember the dead. We owe them that. And those we love, we mourn for. We haven’t stopped loving them. We still love them. But we do not mourn as those who have no hope. We have hope. John has seen them. They are described in his book. They are not dead, they are alive, for they have been washed in the bloody waters of the Lamb and fed upon His holy Body and Blood, and fell asleep in Him. They haven’t been taken from us forever and the Church, no matter how persecuted and dying it appears on earth, will triumph.
Who are these arrayed in white? They are those declared saints by God, all of them; kin and friends, children we never met, grandparents we barely remember, loved ones and yet to meet ones, all saints, and they wait for us. They are our people. This is their festival, our festival. For the “all” in All Saints means that we too, by grace, are in that number.