Saturday, October 30, 2010

All Saints 2010

All Saints 2010

Death and what happens to our human “selves,” our consciousness, our soul, is one of the great mysteries that all peoples have tried to understand. One moment a person is breathing, their heart beating and body warm, sharing life with us. And then something passes, they are still, grow cold, the light leaves their eyes, and they do not respond to any of our entreaties. All animals feel pain, and social animals feel social pain. We mourn the loss of those we know, and wonder what it means for us.

In Mexico, Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), November 2, links ancient indigenous practices and imagery to the Catholic feast of All Souls. In Roman Catholic doctrine, souls which are not condemned to hell but who still need some purgation as a result of earthly sins, spend time in Purgatory or “limbo.” So on the day of the dead, those departed who are still “in play” are invited back into the world. Altars are built to honor the deceased using sugar skulls, marigolds, and favorite foods and beverages of the departed. Their graves are visited and these items brought as gifts.

All Saints Day, November 1, is the Christian remembrance of those ancestors in faith who have gone before us and passed from this earth. Officially, the festival commemorates those who have attained heaven. In practice, and especially under the influence of the protestant Reformation which has moved away from intermediaries between humans and heaven, people remember all the baptized, “all the saints.” And still more broadly, people remember all those who have died for whom heaven is a hope.

Hope is something which connects many death rituals. The great unknown of death is a space into which people naturally project their imagination. The fear of ghosts and other spirits inhabiting the world after life is one side of that coin. And another is the hope that somehow, in the face of this great change, life will continue and that things will be well.

In this icon, Christ is enthroned in heaven, surrounded by angels and saints and the heavenly altar. In the scene below, we see Abraham in Paradise, holding someone (a child?, the poor man Lazarus?) at his bosom, as at the right the repentant thief (Luke 23:32-43) enters. The great testimony of Christian faith is that God has a heart for salvation.

All Saints is a hopeful festival. We do not understand the mysteries of the universe, or the mystery of faith, or what the resurrection will be like, but we do know something about hope.

We hope that what we see is not all there is - that more and better awaits us. We hope that God’s promises of justice and liberation and peace are still being worked in our lives and in this world. We hope that death is not the end, but that a new life awaits us. We hope that the ones we love and who have loved us are not gone, but waiting for us and praying for us and hoping for us. We put our hope in Christ and his promises that the day will come where all things find their end in a new beginning, a new Jerusalem, a new kingdom where all is eternally whole.

This year, as every year, I am a step closer to my own death and I’m remembering more people than last All Saints Day, especially Jon and John and Gregorio and Joe and Frank, saints. Throughout the world, an All Saints tradition is to light candles to remember those lights in heaven who still illumine our way. May God bless and keep all of us still awaiting the fullness of resurrection, and strengthen in us the memory of those faithful ones who inspire us still.


Monday, October 18, 2010

A Mighty Fortress

Reformation Sunday
October 31

Psalm 46

On this day in 1517, Martin Luther attempted to open a public theological dialogue about reforming the practice of the church. One of the results was the Reformation, as social, political, and ideological conflicts divided the Western church. Different branches of the Protestant tradition emphasize different ideas about the Christian faith: the primacy of grace, the distinction between law and gospel, the sovereignty of God, the freedom of the Christian.

The readings for today touch on these themes, which the reformers would assert are not theirs alone, but true for all Christians. Perhaps the most enduring and most radical notion was the reformers’ return to the Bible, translating scripture into modern languages.

Reading and hearing the actual words of scripture... Of course, this has produced some bizarre, idiosyncratic interpretations. But this has also been eye-opening and liberating for uncounted millions, for the church, and for the whole people of God. For the Lord often says something more surprising, more subtle, more challenging, and more grace-ful than we expect.

Take Psalm 46, which was a starting point for Martin Luther’s most famous hymn. “God is our mighty fortress, always ready to help in times of trouble” (Psalm 46:1, CEV).

This kind of prayer is a staple of personal faith. So often we need protection from the things which bedevil us, from real enemies and forces which threaten our safety and wellbeing. Luther himself spent nine months hidden from his enemies at Wartburg Castle, in that time translating the New Testament into German.

Yet the psalm – and the whole of scripture in which it is set – takes us well beyond that very real desire for God’s protection. It is a declaration that our refuge goes far beyond that which we imagine.

We hope for security. But God’s strength is not found in fortifications – the walls of Jericho, Jerusalem, Babylon, and Berlin have all come tumbling down. It is not found in mighty empires – they all crumble, leaving behind the rubble of their fleeting glory. It is not found in the created order – for neither the earth nor the sea is secure. It is not found in wealth, nor family, nor even our religious institutions, despite our deep desires to find something in this world we can trust wholeheartedly. (The psalmist himself may well believe that the holy city of Zion is so closely tied to God that it is such a fortress... Luther himself placed an unfortunate trust in the fortress of the state, with dire results for the German people in his day and in later centuries...)

But the words are clear: “God is our mighty fortress...”

God is more than we dare suspect. More than creation: “At the voice of God the earth itself melts” (Psalm 46:6, CEV). More than empires: God “breaks the arrows, shatters the spears” (Psalm 46:9, CEV). And even when we dare to cling to God’s might, “The LORD All-Powerful is with us” (Psalm 46:11, CEV), we might ponder the nature of God’s power.

For we know that, much as we might wish it, the fortress God does not make us invulnerable. That is the desire of those who build castles and fortifications, which stand only for a moment. “A mighty fortress is our God,” sing the Psalmist and Brother Martin and all the faithful. If we wish to find refuge in God, let us cling not to that which is fleeting – but to God’s righteousness, God’s justice, God’s saving power, God’s loving faithfulness, and yes – though it may be unjustified and totally unexpected – to God’s mercy.


Joseph Fiennes as Luther posting his 95 Theses,

Photo of Wartburg Castle, Eisenach, Germany taken by Robert Scarth, 9th September 2006, and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license (original at