For all the Saints
A reflection on All Saints Day
November 1, 2023
Image: All Saints Day 2022, Wesley Church Melbourne.
written by Bethany Broadstock, Assembly Communications Officer
“Now he is God not of the dead but of the living, for to him all of them are alive.” Luke 20:38
On a Sunday close to 1 November, my favourite ritual of the church’s year will take place. One by one, the names of those in that community who have died will be spoken out loud into the quiet. A candle will be lit. In some communities and traditions, a bell may be rung.
In the tradition of Latin America, of assassinated priest Oscar Romero, as names are called the gathered may respond, Presente! Though passed from sight they are present as they are invoked; as is their courage, their witness, their faithfulness, their inspiration.
"On 1 November I will count them all among the saints and speak their names out loud. I will light a candle for them, not only in memory, but as a symbol of the life that has swallowed up death and the love that will outlive us all."
It is common for the ritual to begin with those who have died in the past year. This slowly expands as more of our saints are named, until our hearts are stretched and our vision large enough to see the great communion envisioned by the author of Hebrews. Faithful disciples in every time and place. Among this holy community are those we ourselves have known and cherished.
At the close of the ritual there are candles ablaze for them all, burning with our love and with our memory. Burning as we allow ourselves to feel the absence of some as a chasm. Burning as the walls between the worlds begin to thin. All Saints Day always comes to us with sorrow and joy, with history and hope.
Although we may be quick (and right) to name the extraordinary people of God, this is always a day for the ordinary saints. Belonging to Uniting Church congregations all my life, I have known many of those. We have known them in our families, in our communities, in our churches.
Today we invoke them.
All God’s saints, those remembered, and those forgotten to us but never to God’s life.
Those we have loved so deeply and miss beyond words, whose lives are written on our hearts.
The saints of the Uniting Church, those who have sought after Jesus in our communities and those whose courage and vision birthed our Church.
Our ancestors in faith, whose courage and witness enables our own.
We give thanks for the saints who are alongside us even at this moment, whose life and faith is bound up with ours.
The last couple of weeks I have been thinking of Christian communities in war-torn regions and of their children who have died; in my mind I see mothers and grandmothers emerging from the communion of saints to enfold and surround them, embracing them into peace.
We will all have people we call to mind today. For me it is always my grandparents.
My beloved grandmother Marjorie, who drew on a bottomless well of faith and hope through the grief of her life, and was sustained by a deep and residing peace and joy. As a gifted composer she put fresh words of faith to music well into her 80s and her songs are still loved and sung at Uniting churches in Victoria.
My beloved grandparents Howard and Valda, officers in the Salvation Army, whose devotion to Jesus was fierce and whose words about him were simple yet fiery with conviction and love.
These are the ordinary saints of God. We have known them, loved them. Some have passed beyond memory but are a treasure forever held in the life of God. They surround us now, a holy communion alive in Christ, cheering us from ahead, shaping us still, inspiring our lives.
On 1 November I will count them all among the saints and speak their names out loud. I will light a candle for them, not only in memory, but as a symbol of the life that has swallowed up death and the love that will outlive us all.
I will remember that we are they; that we by the grace of God take our place in the unbroken circle of the living and the dead, only human yet made holy in belonging.
I will claim the words of faith and promise that in Christ we commune still, bound by threads that can never break nor be cut. In life, in death, in life beyond death, we belong to God.
One of my favourite hymns is that classic, For all the saints, who from their labours rest, which I love to sing each year. If you’re looking to listen, here is a lovely version. I also recently discovered new words for this old song which fill my heart to the brim. May they bless you too!
Soon dawns the promised day of Christ our Lord
when all creation rises up restored,
and all our song, from heart and soul outpoured:
From every age, from dawn to setting sun,
home come the saints to God the Three-in-One,
bringing eternal praise on earth begun,