Today we celebrate All Saints Day… along with Halloween. Usually the two are separate dates on our church calendar, which may seem to make more sense, but, in reality, the two are closely connected. Halloween originated in the ancient Celtic times as a time when the veil between the worlds was thin…. When we could connect easily to those who had died. But this also meant they could connect with us too. This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31 they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. The ghosts were said to damage crops and cause damage to homes, and mostly mischievous harm was done. They gathered together to make huge bonfires and give crop offerings to their gods, often dressed in animal hides, and then each home would take a pice of the fire home to light their hearth fire for the winter.
As with many Christian festivals, the Pope’s of the time who were trying to convert everyone to Christianity, used the festivals already being celebrated and changed them to Christian ones. Christmas is set where it is in our calendar due to the Winter Solstice festival, as one other example. And Samhain was no different. Pope Gregory moved the observance of Martyrs from May to November 1st, and expanded it to include all saints and all souls, and soon the Samhain and All Saints were a blended festival, celebrating the dead and helping them stay where they needed to be instead of breaking through to earth to make mischief!
In Mexico Day of the Dead is celebrated in the same manner, remembering the dead with elaborate rooms set up in home to remember those who have died in the last year. As well as a picture of the one who has died, people bring their favorite foods and drinks, colorful sugar skulls, flowers and cloths are laid on the altar or table or bed, and people travel from one home to the next to share stories and wild tales of the one they are remembering. It is a festive time and laughter and music fills the streets and you never leave a home without a cup of hot chocolate or coffee…. And it goes well through the night! It was a honor to be there one year and be invited to join in the celebration!
In the Catholic Christian calendar, All Saints and All Souls have become a time to remember…. Traditionally All Saints it a time to remember those who have officially made sainthood and All Souls everyone else. In Methodism, we see all who have gone before us as part of the great cloud of witnesses…. As saints who have taught us something to be remembered and honored. And while this remembering can be sad, when some time has passed and grief been felt, often we can remember stories about what we have carried and remembered from one of our saints lives with a feeling of celebration rather than mourning.
So while death is still very much a part of our lives, that promise from Isaiah not yet a reality where death has been swallowed up, I believe that, with time, when we remember those who have died tears will be wiped away from our faces when we we remember our personal saints who have paved a way for our lives, who have taught us things that we continue to grow and learn from, who have left us better people than we would have been if we did not know them.
One of the saints in my life was my great aunt Molly. I didn’t ever get to see her very much as she and my great uncle, George, lived in Norfolk and we were down in London. We did not have a car, and neither did they, so the only time I would see them was when were had taken a train to visit my grandparents and my grandfather agreed to drive us to see them. My great uncle died when I was pretty young, so I don’t remember much about him, but I remember visiting their home….. an old blacksmith cottage with a thatched roof in a little village…. And feeling like I was being wrapped in a warm hug. It felt safe and welcoming and like I was loved. They were unable to have children, and this was always a heartbreak to them, but it did not stop them sharing heir great love with the village…. Many of the local kids would pop in to say hi (and often be given a cookie!) And they were surrogate grandparents to the kids whose families lived far away. Their cottage looked like it belonged on a jigsaw puzzle of an English cottage…. A sunny, flower filled garden and this old building topped with its roof. It had been built in the 1700’s…. Small windows and thick walls and a huge fireplace inside.
When I was 18 or so I decided I wanted to visit aunt Molly, and drove myself to stay for the weekend. When I got there there was a note on the door telling me she was just finishing up at church. I knew she went to church every week, but by this time I had stopped going, but I wandered over to the church a few houses away, and crept in the door to find her. She was up by the altar, arranging some flowers she had picked from her garden, readying the space for worship the next morning. We hugged our hello’s and she said she was almost done, so I helped her finish up with the flowers and polishing the pews. Then I asked if we could just sit there for a minute. I sat in a pew and she sat next to me, and I quietly prayed, Molly by my side. She knew I was hurting and struggling, and silently just took my hand in hers. Soon we left the church and went back to her house for tea. We didn’t say any more about it…. The English way! But the next morning I asked if I could go to church with her. The only thing I remember was walking down the lane with the church bells ringing our over the village! But there was something in that moment the day before in that quiet church with my aunt sitting next to me stayed with me….. her faith and hope, even after all the struggles she had endured in her life. She was my grandfather’s sister, and I know she had not had a good childhood with him around. And then the heartbreak of not being bale to have children, of the loss of her husband at a young age…. And many other things I never knew about. It was as though, in that moment in the church when she held my hand, all that possibility of faith enduring was passed on to me.
And I remember being super angry and confused at her funeral. For there, on the cover of the bulletin, was her picture…. But her name was wrong, and everyone kept calling her a different name, referring to her as Janet. How had I never known she was a Janet and not a Molly? But to me, she will always be my great aunt Moly, a woman of deep faith, even with the trials and pain she lived with.
So now, it’s your turn! Each of you should have a ball of clay…. For we are formed and formed and formed over and over again by God’s own hands, by the lived of those who help shape us, by the experiences we have. I invite you to go sit with someone you did not come to church with taking your ball of clay with you. Choose one person to begin and have that person share a vignette of a saint in your life, Tell a story to the other person. It may be a funny story or how you still see their influence on your life, it may be a memory that just comes to mind, or a colorful story that makes you laugh. And as you share your story, the listener is going to shape the ball of clay. If you are the listener, just let your hands move and shape, don’t overthink what you are making, just see what happens as you shape the clay while you listen. After two or three minutes, I’ll ring the bell and the you switch roles, with the listener telling their story and the new listener shaping their ball of clay.
So find a partner, and I’ll ring us in to begin!
Give your clay creation to the one who told you about their saint, and come forward as a pair with them. As you place it on the altar, say the name of the saint you heard a story about and light a candle for them. If their picture is here, you can place it by the picture, but you may have told about someone whose picture is not here, and that fine. If you would like to say other names, and light candles for other saints while you are up here, use this time to do so. With each name, I will ring a bell.
Let us pray
We remember, O Loving God, the presence of those we knew and loved. Once more may we entrust them to your abiding love. We gather strength from kinship with those who hearts also ache with the absence of their loved ones. Grant us healing and hope even as we grieve. Help up remember sties of how they touched our lives, and turn our tears into gratitude and hope and lessons learnt from these great saints in our lives. With your grace help us to face the mystery of death and what lies beyond it. So may we place our trust in you and in the promise that nothing can separate us from your love in Christ Jesus. Amen.