As you may have realized by now, today is All Saints Day in the life of the church. That may mean different things to different people, depending on what the word “saint” means to you and also depending on your theology of heaven. But at Church of the Apostles, we are less concerned with the rules of sainthood and personalized eschatology. Today, of all days in fact, we let those things go. We celebrate, simply, the communion of the saints – the living and the dead – as one in God and as brothers and sisters … and as grandmas and grandpas, moms and dads, mentors, friends and lovers. All of us are the Saints, named the children of God, along with those who have died.
I am thankful for this day. I often think of loved ones who have died. And I mourn with those around me as they’re loved ones die. But I don’t often celebrate the departed. I only miss them. But today they are Remembered, in the way that Frederick Beuchner describes in his writing. He says,
The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming. But again and again we avoid the long thoughts….We cling to the present out of wariness of the past. And why not, after all? We get confused. We need such escape as we can find.
But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need—not all the time, surely, but from time to time—to enter that still room within us all where the past lives on as a part of the present, where the dead are alive again, where we are most alive ourselves to turnings and to where our journeys have brought us. The name of the room is Remember—the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.
All Saints Day is a day in which we place ourselves in “the room of Remember.” And we remember in light of what we know, and what is unknown, of God.
This year’s Gospel reading for All Saints Day is Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes, or the “Sermon on the Mount.” The Beautitudes, as Matthew chronicles his book, is the first major teaching that Jesus gives in his ministry. And knowing what I do of Jesus and of life, I can’t say that I am surprised. The Beautitudes read almost like a disclaimer, a warning for a life in the way of Jesus. The reading describes the scene with Jesus sitting down, and his disciples coming up to him, and then Jesus speaks the words. I can imagine the gravity with which this message was given by Jesus to his disciples. They are words to remember as we walk through life, certainly, but they are also words to bear in mind as we walk through death.
While death certainly tests our faith, we should not feel tested. The death of those we love should not urge us, necessarily, to become strong and steadfast. It is, after all, those are poor in spirit – those who mourn – the meek – whom Jesus calls Blessed.
In the “whalefall” video we saw an artistic example of what happens to a whale’s body when it dies. (see Vimeo above)
It is difficult to consider the physical aspects of death – what happens to ourbodies when we die. We find it awful. And disgusting. But you know what else is disgusting? Birth. Birth is disgusting. And yet we call it a miracle. Death may also be a miracle. We really just don’t know. We only know that it is hard. And that it sucks, and we wish things were different, not just in heaven.
I am not really a “silver lining” type of girl. I will admit that there is some good that can come from difficult situations. But the good in no way, shape, or form, makes up for those things that are hurtful to our spirits. I think we just make the best of things, but that doesn’t have to mean that things were “meant to be.”
In the whalefall example, I don’t believe the whale died so that other life may be sustained. But that is, in fact, a result of what I would perceive as a very sad thing – the end of a magnificent creature. But God has ordained the world so that death is not the end. The whale’s body will create a whole complex localized ecosystem and sustain a community of other organisms for an entire second lifespan. And these organisms will feed living whales and other creatures. The whale will live on, though it remains no more. This cycle has no end. And I must believe that this is intentional. That Creation renews itself and carries us on, even when we are uninterested in the “silver lining” of new life.
When loved ones die, the devastation experienced is beyond explanation. But the way community forms after those deaths is also beyond explanation. People show up and come together in ways that I can only describe as frustratingly beautiful. Why does it take death to humble us enough to care for one another? Why does it take death for fathers, sons, lovers, and friends, to swallow their pride enough to realize that the grudge they had been holding was not worth it? The “why” is certainly beyond me. But I do know that there are several relationships in my life that would either not exist, or would look a hell of a lot different, had not death stepped in to remind us that life is short and love is all that matters. It is weird to be thankful for that sometimes, because the loss is so great. But the transformations are undeniably true. And while it doesn’t change the fact, for me, that death and dying are inexcusably awful – it does help me believe that there is more going on than I can be aware of. In the words of our Epistle: “what … will be has not yet been revealed.”
I believe that God has placed us in a world where everything around us is leaning and bending toward healing and hopeful transformation, despite what has been revealed. But it is not our task in the midst of our trials to defend this truth. This truth will carry on and move us along with it. We need only simply be with ourselves and our spirits, and our loved ones. When we are ready, we will look up and realize that we are okay. And the world around us is okay. Grace abounds and God has been taking care of us all along. Whether death is a horrible bystander of having life, or if death is really an integral and critical and even beautiful part of life, we do not need to take a stance. But, for our own sakes, we should be open to the possibilities that follow death. Resurrection, for one. We should recognize that death changes us, and not always for the worse. We should recognize that our hurts are wrapped up in an unbearable amount of love that we may have not known we held within us had we not lost it. And maybe, like the dead whale who lives on through those tiny creatures who feed on it, and the creatures who feed on those creatures, our dearly departed live on through us. They live on through our lives and through our Remembering, on All Saints Day and on all days. Feeding is, after all, the way in which Jesus called us to Remember him.