There are many reasons to get up on a Sunday morning and come to church: seeing our friends and sharing in community, hearing and singing beautiful hymns, and, of course, being fed by Jesus Christ in Word and Sacrament. In addition to all of these, another reason that I love coming to church is the way Christian communities mark important milestones in our lives, and reinforce the connections between God and each other that make us who we are. Even those who don’t come to church regularly often come for baptisms, confirmations, weddings and funerals—all moments in our individual lives when we celebrate God’s loving presence with us, and our treasured place in the larger life of the body of Christ.
Today is another day like that—another day when we come together to mark a significant milestone in our Christian life together: the day when we remember the loved ones we have lost, entrust them into God’s care, and console ourselves with the sure hope of the resurrection, when every tear will be wiped away, and we all will be reunited in Christ.
For this reason, All Saints Sunday is one of the most important celebrations in the Christian Church. It stands at the heart of what we believe and confess about our salvation in Jesus Christ. First, you, me, our friends, our neighbors, our enemies, every single one of us is bound together over time and space in Jesus Christ. Second, death is not the end: Christ is victorious over death, and as Christ has been born in us in our baptism, so are we.
These past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, most—maybe even all—of us lost someone, and often, it was someone who died too soon, someone who died alone, someone we still miss: today and every day. Loss after loss after loss; and the pain of those losses doesn’t just go away.
But today, that loss, that pain don’t stand alone. Today, we wrap that loss and that pain in something bigger, something greater, something that is stronger any pain, any loss we experience—and that is the love God has for us that transcends even death, and the sure promise of eternal life that we know awaits all of us when we pass from life through death and into life with Christ. It is in that love, in that life, where our beloved friends and family members await us in the future, and it is where we are joined with them right now, today.
I love the way Tim Wengert has described this connection. He has written about this using the image of an oval communion rail. He says that in the meal, when we break the bread and celebrate Christ’s presence among us, we can imagine the other half of that oval being closed in heaven, where Christ is also present with our loved ones—and in that moment, we are at the table together. It is like Christ stands in the chasm, bridging time and space with his own body, holding the living and dead together in one embrace. Those we have loved and lost are not gone. “There,” they are held, remembered, and cherished in Jesus Christ, just as we are here held, remembered, and cherished.
These Christian beliefs were all made very vivid for me when I was down in Mexico City last week, during the time when they celebrate one of their most well-known holidays: Dia de Los Muertos—the Day of the Dead. This holiday has its origins in pre-Christian indigenous religions, but the Catholics adopted it when they came from Spain to Mexico and it is now celebrated widely all over the country, and by Latine communities in other parts of the world as well, including, of course, the United States.
In Mexico City, beautiful, elaborate altars are constructed all over the city: churches, stores, hotels, restaurants, and cemeteries, and there is a huge display in the Zocalo, the main city square. The altars are decorated with pictures of loved ones who have died, and offerings of food, drink and other items are placed there as well. These altars are vibrant remembrances of the dead, and serve to bring them, figuratively, into the present. In this way, these altars are a visual, tangible link between the living and the dead, and a sign of hope that the dead are indeed still with us, certainly in our thoughts and hearts, and even in our lives. I love this celebration, and I think even those of us who aren’t Latino or Latina in background can appreciate the sentiment behind it. Those we love who are no longer with us in the flesh are not lost, they are not gone; they are still with us, they do still live in Jesus Christ. And one day, we will all be together again.
As Paul exhorts us in the Ephesians reading for All Saints Day, may the eyes of our heart be enlightened in the sure hope of eternal life with Christ; and may we be strengthened in this hope for life here and now: a life marked by the gospel, a life shaped by love, a life held in God’s strong arms. Now, and always.