“For all the saints …”
— Hymnal 1982, #287
When we offer nighttime prayers at our house, we always include a section of ‘thank you, God’. Everyone in the family has a ritualized way of listing their constant thanks yous—for siblings, for the dog—combined with some additions from the day. My five-year-old has proven the creative thinker on this front, and recently, he has taken to offering two particular thank yous: ‘Thank you God for all the people in the world, and thank you God for all the people who have died.’ It makes me pause every time.
We’re pretty forthright about death in our household—your mileage might vary on this topic, of course—but I figure the only way we’re all getting out of here is through that narrow door where we can’t take anything with us, where we bank on God’s love, and so we might as well be as truthful as we can be. I’m not surprised that he thinks about death, but I find his use of the word ‘all’ quite interesting.
I can imagine being grateful for all the people in the world. Seeing the wide diversity of people in the world as a gift from God is, near as I can tell, one of Jesus’s main teachings. But am I grateful for all the dead folks, too?
As we approach the Feast of All Saints, his prayer has made me realize how often I celebrate All Saints as though it were ‘each saints day.’ I think of the big ‘S’ saints that I like—Teresa and Francis and Columba—and I think of the saints that I have known, whose embodied faith changed the course of my life. I am grateful for Janice and Dale, for Tom and Garland. They weren’t perfect, but they were the saints that mattered to me.
We need to celebrate these saints in our lives—you have them too, I suspect. It’s a lovely way to spend All Saints—honoring the loving people who showed us something of God’s love. Many church communities read out the names of individuals who have died in that community over the last year. Each life matters to God, and each is distinct. However, my five-year-old son has made me realize that I tend to celebrate the feast day like this every year, remembering each saint. And this year, he’s made me think about all saints.
If you look for icons or paintings about the feast day, they usually include a swarm of people. A common trope seems to be to make them look like the droplets that make up a cloud (‘cloud of witnesses,’ as Hebrews describes it), or like a whole mob of haloed heads. Sometimes the group looks like an orderly parade, and sometimes it’s a chaotic horde of virtue. On All Saints, we can and should certainly remember each saint, but we also need to be reminded of the ‘all.’
Thinking of ‘all’ rather than ‘each’ reminds us that we’re part of a big, diverse, slightly odd community. Being a Christian can be rather lonely at times, but it’s not fundamentally a lonely endeavor. We belong. After all, ‘all’ includes us, too, now or later. And if we haven’t found our people among the saints, it’s worth looking around. We might be surprised exactly how diverse the Christians of this world have been and are still.
Thinking of ‘all,’ too, reminds us that they’re all saints—not just the ones I like. What binds all the saints together is God’s love, not our categories. To celebrate all saints, and not just some, is to rejoice in a love that isn’t stopped by death, but also a love that isn’t stopped by the limits of our imagination. On All Saints, we are invited to love, and to accept being loved, in ways so great that we can only gesture at them with the saintly swarms of art.