Feast of All Saints
November 5, 2017
In my family life I have seen two births and two deaths. Twice I have seen people come into this world– as you might guess, Kateri’s and my two glorious sons, born in the wee hours of the morning. Twice I have seen people leave this world – my two maternal grandparents, in the afternoon and evening. Each of these moments has been holy, tear-inducing, and life affirming. In each of these moments I felt caught up in a time outside of time and space outside of space. Each of these moments, in different ways, was simultaneously an ending and a beginning. The quality of beginning is obvious in the case of the births, just as the quality of ending is obvious in the deaths. But the births also marked an ending —certainly in the onset of profound sleep loss but more fundamentally in the conclusion of a previous chapter of life even as the next chapter opened out before us in all its mystery. The deaths too marked a beginning, not simply in the sense of a new chapter in the lives of we who now began to navigate the world without the companionship and support of our grandparents or, in the case of my mom, her parents. They were birthed into eternal life, into the company of the holy ones of God who had gone before them. These experiences not only deepened my awareness of how connected birth and death are. They also reminded me of how earthly life is constantly bracketed by both. We all live in a constant process of becoming in an unfolding, mysterious threshold.
On the Feast of All Saints, we intentionally step out of the sequential unfolding of time as we know it—or as we think we know it – and receive a different perspective. The veils behind which our lives operate are lifted and we are invited to become aware of the thresholds in which we stand. In this way, All Saints prepares us well for the extended threshold season of Advent which we will practice for seven instead of four weeks this year, joining congregations across the Church who are taking up this movement to return to a more intentional, early Christian practice. Since it begins next week, I will introduce it more fully then. But today the Feast of All Saints invites us to stand in the threshold of that life that opens out on the other side of death. The glimpse we catch – signaled in the names and stories of our opening litany – is part of a much larger, cosmic vision, grounding us in the “very good” declaration of creation in its fullness, connecting us to all the saints, to all who have died, and to one another, forging us anew in the uniting hope of God’s call to us.
Our reading from Revelation (7:9-17) conveys a small portion of the breathtaking vision given to John the Divine on the island of Patmos. What John sees and reports is often downright strange or terrifying, and sometimes his misogynist metaphors can be downright offensive. But today’s reading is one of his most beautiful passages. It is also one of the Book of Common Prayer’s suggestions for readings at funerals. First, John conveys the vastness of the gathering. People crowd his vision, in numbers as incalculable as the family originally promised to Abraham and Sarah. John says specifically that this community represents “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (7:9). Their white robes and palm branches signal that they have died for their profession of faith. Many an early Christian fresco or mosaic depict lines of white robed, palm branch bearing people, often also crowned with laurels to signify their completion of the contest, in Greek the ἀγών (from which we get the word agony), of their lives. To be openly Christian in this early context challenged the imperial Roman context in which this people dared to live out what the Greek verb μαρτυρέω means at its most literal level: to bear witness with their lives their vision, their determination to follow the teachings of Jesus, to place their hope in him. In that context they lost their lives. So too had the lamb at the center of the divine throne which John describes as both “slain” and very much alive, as both lamb and shepherd (7:14-17). A priest from my former diocese, the Reverend Katherine Piccard who died earlier this fall, once impressed upon me that the image of Christ as lamb expresses God’s presence and solidarity with all who are oppressed, particularly with all who have been killed. As an animal-shepherd, it reaches across not only the borders of life and death but also of animal and human, and of follower and of leader. The lamb at the center of the throne can signal that the anointed one came to stand with, to reconcile, to join all creation, to lead the whole homeward. I, who had previously been a little leery of the lamb, had my eyes opened.
Yet as breathtaking as this vision may be, it is far from straight forward. Realizing this, John seems to want us to know that if we find his vision somewhat bewildering and unsettling, even a bit strange, he was initially as mystified as we may be. When one of the Elders, already present before the throne, observes the approaching multitude and asks John who they are, John replies essentially, you’re asking me? (7:14a) Then the Elder relents and explains that the crowd represents those who have “come out of the great ordeal” (7:14b). Their sorrows had been taken up, their brokenness restored, by the lamb whom they now stood before and gave thanks.
Our second reading from the first letter of John (3:1-3) also speaks to a gap in communal understanding, movingly acknowledging a profound sense of dislocation and uncertainty. The author of this letter – usually identified in the tradition of John the Evangelist rather than John the Divine – speaks to a beloved people who are located in a world that does not understand them, does not see them. “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know [God]” (3:1). They were illegible to their context because that world could not conceive of a God who would become human in Jesus Christ, would cross the threshold between Creator and Creation, enter its midst, bear its sorrows, heal its pains, take on the structures of its evil to the very grave and out the other side. Once you can begin to imagine such a God, then the people of that God, the disciples of that Christ, those who pattern their lives after the One who called them to follow, begin to make sense. The people to whom John is speaking are caught between a context that does not see them and a future they themselves cannot quite imagine. In this terrifying, uncertain threshold John reassures them. Joining them, he speaks with them as us, as we, and acknowledges the unknown, saying, “What we will be has not yet been revealed” (3:2). As unrecognized and oppressed as they were in their current context, they felt just as uncertain about the context to come. What would they be? Who would they be?
This brief line took my breath away when I encountered it in the fall of 2000. It was shortly after my grandmother had died, I was starting a year of Anglican studies, was a candidate for Holy Orders, and was finally actively and terrifiedly coming out to myself as trans. Whoever we are, whatever our age or station in life, I wager that all of us in our own ways have stood, stand now, and/or will yet stand in a threshold as something we know we cannot prevent approaches, something that is both a death and a birth. Standing in that threshold, John speaks directly to and with us: What we will be has not yet been revealed. But, he continues, “what we do know is this: when [God] is revealed, we will be like [God], for we will see [God] as [God] is.” Already, we are children of God, even if our contexts cannot perceive that—even if we ourselves fail sometimes to perceive it. We stand, always, in a threshold in which our work and our growth continues, even as so much exceeds what we can know. The Apostle Paul adds a strongly relational dimension to this threshold at the end of his famous reflection on love: “we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12). We will be known. We will be seen. We will be like God, even amid our uncertainty or our mourning. “Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus says, “for they will be comforted” while pureness of heart leads to the blessing of seeing God (Mt 5:4, 8). “Look on God and be radiant,” affirms the Psalm (Ps 34:5). In seeing God, we will grow more fully into the divine likeness in which we were made.
Shortly after my Grandma Helen died in 2000 she showed up vividly in a dream. I was in my grandparents 1950s era Orinda kitchen, and their yellow push-button phone rang. My grandfather, who had not yet died, answered it and held it out, saying, “it’s for you.” When I took it, my grandmother’s unmistakable voice reached out to me across the great gap, assuring me with love. When I asked how she was, and what her experience was like now, whether everything was placid and restful, she answered peacefully but mysteriously, “it’s more like ‘Guide Me Oh Thou Great Jehova.” It was a strange enough reply -- especially because my grandma was not a habitual hymn quoter – that I remembered it clearly when I woke up and was able to immediately look up the hymn. Its final verse stood out: “When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside. Death of death and hell’s destruction, land me safe on Canaan’s side. Songs of praises, songs of praises, I will ever give to Thee; I will ever give to Thee.” What struck me was the image of a journey that does not simply end or become static but continues as a way of growth, filled with song. We stand linked across untold chasms in this verge, this threshold, as something new comes to birth. This place in which we stand, this border in which we journey, is holy ground. Our call right now is to bid our anxious fears subside, and to honor one another in the borders in which we stand. Together at this Feast of All Saints, on the verge of Advent, amid our communal discernment of becoming a Sanctuary parish, we do not know exactly what we will be. But we do know this: together we will be like God, for we shall see God as God is.