Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
We are in week 724 of our sermon series on Rituals, Rites, and Holy Days. Maybe not 724, but we have been at this for a bit, and we will conclude this series next week when we celebrate Reformation Sunday. We’ve been through quite a bit: Passover, Hanukkah, Sabbath, Baptism, Communion, and last week we considered both Advent and Lent. Each week we have used a symbol that has been left near the front of the sanctuary as a reminder of these holy days, but last week I failed to even mention the symbol that I brought for Lent and Advent, which was a clock. I spoke about how Advent and Lent build anticipation as we near the day when Jesus sets things right, and someone asked after last Sunday’s sermon if I intentionally did not mention the large clock behind me as a way to build the anticipation.
Yes, let’s go with that.
Maybe you give me too much credit, because I just flat-out forgot it. Which is even funnier because the whole point of this series on Rituals, Rites, and Holy Days and all of these symbols were meant to help us remember.
So I’m going to lead with my symbol today, which may not bring you back to a certain memory in the same way it does for me because this is unique to someone I lost this last year, my grandfather. My grandfather passed away on January 3, 2017, fifteen years to the date after my grandmother’s passing. I’ve got a few things from him: some coins, a cuckoo clock, and my pointy nose.
What may surprise you is that what I want to share today is my grandfather’s dog tags from World War II. I’ve mentioned before that my grandfather served in a non-combatant role in WWII. I’ve also mentioned that I believe in nonviolence. So what I have in my grandfather’s dog tags are not only a reminder of him, but also a challenge to my idealism.
Today we are discussing a Holy Day called “All Saints’ Day.” This one may be new to you, but I’m pretty sure that you are at least familiar with some of the spin-offs from this day of remembrance. So what we are going to do today is look at our scripture to see what we can learn from the past, consider the ways All Saints’ Day has and is celebrated, and ask how we can best remember those who have come before us.
I love this passage from Hebrews 12 and the idea of a “great cloud of witnesses.” Let’s work backwards through this phrase. The word we translate as witness is “martous,” and it is where we get the word martyr from. Witness is an interesting word, because it can describe people on both sides of an action. If there was a crime or a good deed committed, and you saw it, you might say that you witnessed that event. Or we can flip that around. If you are telling about an event or a story that happened to you, you might say that you are witnessing. We sometimes use the phrase “to witness” to describe when someone shares their faith story. We are bearing witness.
So to witness can mean to see something first hand or to tell about something that you have seen first hand.
The word we translate as cloud is “nephos.” Nephos can literally refer to the clouds in the sky, or it can be used metaphorically to describe a great number of people. Imagine a group of people filling a city, looking like a cloud, moving slowly, filling every inch. Some have even claimed that the word nephos was used to describe the cheap seats in a stadium. We might call it the “nose bleed section.” Some scholars believe that nephos martous was like a stadium filled with this great number of witnesses, watching every aspect of our lives play out in front of them.
I’m not sure that I love that image. But let’s put it together. There is this large group of witnesses. With the dual role of the word witness, we can assume that these people are telling us their story and watching as our stories unfold.
To understand this even better, we need to back up to the beginning of chapter 11, where the author of Hebrews gives us a definition: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.”
The author then goes on to tell the stories of people from the Old Testament and their faith. Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and Moses are all listed by name. Abraham knew a thing or two about faith, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Moses, well he had some doubts, stumbled along the way, but he was faithful in the end.
These are the people who make up a small part of the great cloud of witnesses. Five people a great cloud do not make, so I think we can assume that the cloud of witnesses is made up of all those people of faith who have gone on before us.
And just to be clear, with the way this passage is set up, I believe that these faithful people are bearing witness to a life of faithfulness, not just watching us from the nosebleed section of the stadium. These are the saints, the holy ones, whose lives we look to as an example of how to persevere the trials and temptations of this world. So you can feel comfortable taking your time when you change clothes, they aren’t watching. J
Like I’ve said before about other holy days, All Saints’ Day does indeed have its roots in the Catholic Church, but many protestant churches observe All Saints’ Day today as well. We just often do it differently.
For instance, in the Catholic Church you are probably aware that they practice something called the veneration of the saints where members of the church go through a process known as “canonization.” Each step provides a different title for the person, and in the final step they become recognized by the church as a saint. Many of these saints have been given a special day of celebration; you may heard the phrase, “The Feast Day of St….” Today is dedicated to John Paul II.
But here’s the problem. There are over 10,000 saints recognized by the Catholic Church, and only 365 days a year, maybe 366 if you’re lucky. So how do you celebrate the saints who didn’t get their own day?
You have a little something called “All Saints’ Day.”
All Saints’ Day is a part of a three-day celebration. And to prime you for this, I want us all to recite the Lord’s Prayer, from the King James Version, until I say “stop.” And don’t worry, I won’t make you go very far.
“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed…” STOP!
Hallowed, like God’s name has had the insides all cleaned out and now it is hollow?
No, hallow is simply an old English word for holy. Shakespeare wrote his plays about the same time the KJV was written, and he even refers to All Saints’ Day as Hallowmas. So if Hallowmas is All Saints’ Day, what is the night before? That would make it All Hallows’ Eve, or what we commonly call Halloween.
In our culture, Halloween is a strange time of year where we carve pumpkins, dress up in costumes, try to scare one another, and beg our neighbors for candy. And that just goes to show you how people can take a holiday, forget about its origins, grab a few traditions, and run the opposite way with it! But I can totally see how celebrating the lives of those who have passed away can become a bit scary with talk of the dead, ghosts, spirits and the like. There is some debate about this, but some historians claim that the practice of trick-or-treating comes from the tradition of Christians going from house-to-house collecting food for the poor on All Hallows’ Eve. Growing up I was told that trick-or-treating was invented by a dentist who wanted more children to get cavities so that he would have more work. I could believe either of those scenarios.
I said that this was a three-day event in the church, so what is left after All Hallows’ Eve and All Saints’ Day? Every year on November 2, the Catholic Church celebrates All Souls’ Day. Guess what, not everyone who has gone before us has been a saint, and surely not everyone has been recognized by the Catholic Church as a saint! So the Catholic Church observes a day to remember all of the faithful who have passed on.
If you are familiar with Latino/a culture, you have probably heard of Dia de Muertos, the Day of the Dead. This is a day of celebration where the dead are honored and remembered, often people dress up in deathly costumes and decorate with skeletons. Dia de Muertos is the way Latinos do the three-day celebration of All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day. When the Spanish conquistadors brought Catholicism to Latin America, the locals incorporated some of their own customs into the event. And if you are going to remember a beloved relative, what better way is there than with churros?
I’ve been pretty careful up to this point to differentiate between the Catholic Church and Protestant churches because there is a significant amount of differences in how we approach All Saints’ Day. Since we Protestants don’t officially canonize saints, we use this word differently. If I speak of my dear Aunt Sally and say that she was quite the saint, I’m not saying that she had been recognized by the church as such. You wouldn’t ask me, “Oh really? When is her feast day?” I’m saying that she was a good example, someone that I think I could learn from.
When we recognize All Saints’ Day in the Protestant church we tend to treat this day like the Catholic Church treats All Souls’ Day. My time with those rascals, the Methodists, has shown me that they really take All Saints’ Day seriously. I found this quote online: “In Methodist theology, All Saints’ Day revolves around ‘giving God solemn thanks for the lives and deaths of his saints,’ including those who are ‘famous or obscure.’” Wikipedia, Joe Iovnio.
It is tradition in the Methodist Church to read aloud the names of everyone in that congregation who had passed away in the last year. The Methodist website, “Discipleship Ministries” lists 24 different hymns from their two hymnals to choose from that focus on the faith of their ancestors. There are many liturgical readings available, including prayers, like this one:
We bless your holy name, O God,
for all your servants who, having finished their course,
now rest from their labors.
Give us grace to follow the example
of their steadfastness and faithfulness,
to your honor and glory;
through Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
For me, All Saints’ Day isn’t about praying to a saint or feasting in the name of the departed faithful. It is about remembering the ones who practiced their faith and passed it on to us. It is about remembering my grandmother, who wore her prayer covering at all times, even fixing it to her wigs when the chemo took her hair. It is about remembering the beloved members of this congregation with whom I have walked through the final days of their lives. It is about remembering my first pastoral mentor, Howard Schmitt—or Schmitty as I liked to call him (but not to his face), who died in a car accident and spent his last few breaths making sure his wife knew he loved her and that he had forgiven the young man who crossed the center line.
Were these people saints? Not literally, no. There is no Saint Schmitty. But can we learn from the examples of these people? Absolutely, but only if we put forth the effort to remember them.
I know that you have remembered the saints in your life as well, and you do so in various ways. I have been collecting the names of your dearly-departed loved ones over the last few weeks for our time of remembrance, and some of these names were familiar to me, even though I’d never met the deceased. I saw names like Anna and Carrie from one family, names I recognized as the first-born great-granddaughters of these saints. And Edna Mae, whose granddaughter shares a name and an acronym, and is here today. My brother’s twins have my maternal grandparents’ names as middle names.
Whether we celebrate All Saints’ Day on the first of November or not is of no importance to me whatsoever. What really matters is that we remember the faithful who have gone on before us. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, those who have lived a life worth emulating. Not because they were perfect. Abraham, Moses, these people weren’t perfect. But because they were people of faith.