Saturday is Reformation Day, the so-called ‘holiday’ when Protestants celebrate violating 1 Corinthians 12 and telling part of Christ’s Body: ‘I have no need for you.’
This Sunday we celebrate the holy day known as All Saints.
It’s an ironic confluence of occasions as though we celebrate the former often refuse, on those very grounds, to observe the latter.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, famously said that All Saints’ Day was his favorite holy day on the liturgical calendar. Methinks Wesley must’ve have suffered through some dreadful Christmas services to make such a claim tenable.
Nonetheless, All Saints’ is a powerful reminder of two primary claims of our faith, that of Ash Wednesday and that of Hebrews:
To dust we came and to dust we shall return.
We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses; i.e.. those who’ve returned to the dust ahead of us.
All Saints’ Day is celebrated chiefly as we preside over the Eucharist, calling upon the ‘great company of heaven’ to join in our alleluia.
Every year when All Saints’ is just a few days away on the schedule I’m given to thinking about the men and women who’ve been saints to me, in my own life and what, increasingly over the years, I’ve become convinced is one of the most important questions:
‘Can we pray to the saints?’
It’s a good question, a question that’s been a bone of contention between Christians ever since Martin Luther nailed his 95 protests against the Catholic Church into the sanctuary doors in Wittenberg 500 years ago:
Can we solicit the prayers of the dead?
Can we ask the saints to pray for us?
Those, I think, are better ways of putting the question.
Of course there’s the standard Protestant tropes about how praying to anyone but Jesus Christ is…idolatrous; how devotion to anything else, saint or otherwise, detracts from our devotion to Christ.
And there’s the mantra of the Reformation: how we are saved by faith alone, by Christ alone, who is our Great, High Priest therefore we don’t need any other priest, confessor or saint to mediate our prayers.
Can we ask the saints to pray for us?
It’s a question that has divided Christians for 5 centuries.
After all they won’t be celebrating All Saints Day at any of the Baptist or Pentecostal churches up and down Ft Hunt Road.
And in the United Methodist Church and in the Episcopal Church we split the difference. We remember and we give thanks for the saints, but we don’t speak to them. We don’t call on them. And we typically don’t ask them to pray for us.
At funerals, the Book of Worship guides officiants to draping a white pall over the casket while proclaiming:
Dying, Christ destroyed our death.
Rising, Christ restored our life.
As in baptism __________ put on Christ, so now is __________ in Christ and clothed with glory.
Then facing the gathered, the pastor holds out her hands and for the call to worship voiced Jesus’ promise:
I am the resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.
And then at the end of the service, after the preaching and the sharing and the crying, the pastor lays her hands on the casket and prayed the commendation:
As first you gave __________ to us, now we give _________ back to you.
Receive __________ into the arms of your mercy.
Receive __________ into the fellowship of your departed saints.
When we baptize someone, we baptize them into Christ and we declare that he or she will forever be a son or daughter in heaven. And so in death we never cease to be in Christ.
The Christian community is one that blurs the line between this world and the next. That’s why Christians use the word ‘veil’ to describe death, something so thin you can nearly see through it.
It’s a fellowship that cannot be broken by time or death because it’s a communion in the Living Christ. What we name by the word ‘Church’ is a single communion of living and departed saints. The Church is one People in heaven and on Earth.
The dead don’t disappear into the ether. They don’t walk around as vaporous ghosts. They don’t dissolve into the fibers and cells of the natural world. They’re gathered around the throne, worshipping God. They’re in Christ, the very same communion they were baptized into. The same communion to which we belong.
And so death does not destroy or fundamentally change our relationship to the dead.
We pray and, according to the Book of Revelation, so do they.
We praise God and, according to the Great Thanksgiving-our communion prayer, so do they.
We try to love God and one another and, according to the Book of Hebrews, they do so completely.
Our fellowship with the departed saints is not altogether different from our fellowship with one another.
That’s what we mean when we say in the Creed ‘I believe in the communion of saints…’ We’re saying: ‘I believe in the fellowship of the living and the dead in Christ.’ So it seems to me we can pray and ask the saints to pray for us.
Not in the sense of praying to them.
Not in the sense of giving them our worship and devotion.
But if we believe in the communion of saints, living and dead, then asking the departed saints for their prayers is no different than Trish, Julie and David- in my congregation- asking for my prayers for them this week.
It’s not, as Protestants so often caricature, that the saints are our way or our mediators to Jesus Christ.
Rather, because we (living and dead) are all friends in Jesus Christ we can talk to and pray for one another.
I can ask Jackson, who had an eleven year old’s insatiable curiosity for scripture, to pray for me that I never take these stories for granted.
I can ask Joanne and Peg, both of whom knew better than me what it was to serve the poor, to pray for me that I not lose sight of what Jesus expects of me.
I can ask Eleanor, who made her boys her priority, to pray for me that I never stop treasuring mine.
It’s an important question because it’s one I think about every time I stand behind a loaf of bread and a cup of wine and pray:
‘…and so with your people here on earth and all the company of heaven, we praise your name and join their ending hymn…’