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Today is All Saints Day, or All Hallows Day. (That’s where Hallowe’en gets its name from, of course – the Eve of All Hallows.) This feast was created by Pope Gregory III in the 2nd Century, to remember the hundreds of martyrs who had died at Roman hands in the early days of Christianity. It’s a bit like the tomb of the Unknown Soldier – a day for all the ones who number so many to be remembered. We also have All Souls Day, tomorrow, also known as ‘The Day of the Dead’, when we remember all our loved ones who have died. We call this the season of Allhallowtide.
(By the way, we should remember that ‘saints’ doesn’t necessarily just mean people canonised by the Roman Catholic or Anglican churches. In the Bible, a saint is anyone who follows Jesus and trusts in him for salvation. Not just dead people, not just good people, not just famous people. We are saints too!)
Some scholars propose that these Christian festivals were deliberately placed at the time of the old Celtic feast of Samhain. In the Celtic calendar, this was the beginning of the New Year, and one of what they regarded as the two hinges of the year (the other being at Beltaine, at the beginning of May). They believed that, at these hinges, the separation between our world and the world of the dead became thin.
So Samhain was a time of death and endings, and of commemorating the dead. It was a time to honour and remember ancestors, and seek their help in putting to rest all things that were no longer needed or wanted for the year to come. It was the third and last Harvest Festival, the time when the animals were slaughtered; not only would their meat keep people fed over winter, but there would also be fewer creatures among which to spread the meagre food available. So it was a time also of sacrifice; meaningful death, that creates the possibility of life.
You can see similar elements in Day of the Dead traditions in Mexico, Totensonntag in Germany, and even in our Remembrance Services. In them, perhaps we recognise the way this time of year naturally brings with it a poignancy, a sense of change and loss – an awareness of things passing. There is about Autumn what the Japanese call mono no aware – the bittersweet pathos and beauty of transience.
So, during Allhallowtide, we think of the saints and souls of our family in light – those who have passed on; the ancestors whose lives led to ours and the witnesses whose faith led to our own. I wonder who you think of, and how you feel about them.
We may or may not have got on with the family members we knew, may or may not admire those whose stories we have been told. For many people, it is their found family rather than family of origin that has provided them with the community of mutual support that they need. For some of us, it may be enormously strengthening to think of the family line of ancestors standing in solidarity behind us; but you may prefer to think of the line of people who have fought your fight or whose story has joined with your story in some way. I wonder which ancestors stand behind you? John Wesley, maybe? Emmeline Pankhurst? Frida Kahlo? Harvey Milk? Who went before you, like Good King Wenceslas in the Christmas carol, leaving footprints that you could step into?
Our faith family is not lost or gone. “I am going to prepare a place for you,” Jesus said. From the disciples who followed Jesus and told his story and broke bread in his name, to the great men and women who have inspired us in our spiritual journey, to the ones we knew when we were small who have since died; we may not see them, but they aren’t lost. They are with Jesus. And because we are also with Jesus, that means they are also with us. Maybe you find that comforting or perhaps a bit creepy, I don’t know! Perhaps you’d like to tell them to stay well away from you, thank you very much.
But while I was thinking about ancestors and All Saints Day, I had a thought that I wanted to share with you. In some churches it is common practice to pray to saints and ask them to pray on our behalf in heaven. Not so in Methodism. But, thinking of all the ancestors standing behind us, ready to help us, I thought, “What if I could ask John Wesley to work for action on climate change?” And I suddenly felt we’d have a lot more power to our elbow if John Wesley was on the case!
So, in our prayer time shortly, and over the course of this week, I thought perhaps you’d like to think about your ancestors of family and faith, and whether there are any who you would like to ask to pray with you and work with the Spirit on the issues that concern you. If that thought makes you uncomfortable, then you can leave it alone, and just stick with Jesus. You won’t find a better friend than him, anyway, or someone whose prayers are more powerful or more effective. But I bet there are people you’ve known in that great cloud of witnesses who would be an asset to any prayer team, heavenly or earthbound. In this, the hinge of the year, we call on them to pray with us.