Oh, blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
~ ELW 422 For All the Saints v. 4
The older I get and the longer I have served in ministry, All Saints Sunday becomes more and more meaningful to me. As we remember those who have gone before us in faith, it is natural to also look back at our own lives and experiences. As more and more years go by, the more poignant the themes and images of All Saints Sunday become.
I haven’t counted the total, but I think I have been a part of around 100 funerals as a pastor (which is neither a little not a lot in 13 years). For perspective, there are about 50 Sunday and festival worship services to preside at each year (that includes Sundays on holidays). So in 13 and a half years of ministry, I have presided at close to two extra years of Sunday services made up of just funerals.
In my early years as a pastor, that made me an oddity among my friends of a similar age (other than my pastor friends). Many of my grade school friends hadn’t ever been to a funeral or just a very few in their mid-twenties, while I was helping families plan and presiding at funerals regularly.
It is still a strange thing to experience regularly something that so many tiptoe around, to know funerals inside and out when most people find even thinking about them uncomfortable.
Funerals often come in bunches as there will be periods of time when months and months go by without having any to preside at. Then all of a sudden there will be three funerals over the span of two weeks. Death is unpredictable and there is never a way to truly be prepared for it, no matter how many times you have walked the path before.
There is quite a bit of All Saints artwork that portrays the great crowd before the throne of God as a faceless crowd more numerous than can be counted. After praying over urns and caskets, standing at gravesides and praying with families in mourning, the great crowd of Saints gathering before the throne isn’t just a bunch of faceless people anymore for me. I can picture many of the faces in the crowd of Saints that I have personally helped to usher into the Kingdom, and an even larger crowd of loved ones, family and friends attached to that crowd. Faces as old as 100 years and as young as two years, those who have died of natural causes, and those who have died because of accident and tragedy. Each All Saints Sunday brings with it a growing crowd of the faithful departed that sticks out in my mind.
Often when death is portrayed on TV and in the movies, the big moment is the dying. Main characters, whether villain or hero, will prolong their death with powerful last words. Friends and family will pack a hospital room to be there as a character slips away, lingering on with sad but knowing faces in the final moments. And then the scene will cut to a brief funeral or to a glimpse of a headstone. The last moments of life linger, but grief slips by in a moment – at least in Hollywood.
In real life, that time after a loved one dies, those minutes, hours, days and weeks, months and years of grief can feel long, heavy and drawn out. The days before a funeral can feel like an eternity of planning and preparations. The weeks following can feel empty and hollow and meaningless. There is a discomfort that we have with grief, even as our culture has a fixation with death. How it is that our navigating the messy and complicated path of grieving does not hold the same dramatic appeal as life and death stories do?
Walking the path of grief is hard and lonely. All too often those at the centre of the grieving are left alone, while those around them gradually decrease their care and support. The week before and after a funeral, there can be a flurry of cards, phone calls and casseroles. Even six weeks or six months on, the grief and sense of loss can feel as deep as ever. Yet, there can be an unspoken expectation that it is time to move on and stop being sad, even from the most caring and well-intentioned support networks.
All Saints Sunday is our moment to attend to that grief outside of the raw emotions of a recent death and funeral. It is an opportunity to grieve collectively, even as we each grieve our losses differently. All Saints Sunday helps us to put in context the life AND death of a loved one, into the grand story of the lives and deaths of God’s people but also into the story of death and new life found in Christ.
All Saints Sunday helps us to place all of our grief on the table. Our grief for loved ones gone before us, our grief for lives that did not go the way we expected, our grief for all the losses experienced in this life, all the other kinds of death that we deal with each day: change, failure, broken relationship, illness, addiction and so on.
And finally All Saints Sunday reminds us of a day when we can hopefully hear it better; that all the grief we bring to the table, all the losses and scars we bear, that all the ways in which life breaks us down… that all of this is held by God. All of this is not too much for God to carry. God holds us and all creation until we are ready for new life.