Homily delivered to the English Church in Villars, Switzerland.
4 November 2018, the Feast of All Saints
If you have ever felt alone in your faith, then this feast day is for you. If you have ever felt doubt, then this feast day is for you. If you have ever questioned or not believed or not known what to believe then this feast day is for you.
The feast day of All Saints is a remembrance fashioned to echo back through the ages of Christian history, to proclaim that we are not alone. Your faith, your baptism, does not belong to you alone. This journey is not only a singular and personal experience for you alone to figure out and get right.
As a Christian, you are not blazing a new trail. Your prayers and questions and doubts and hopes are not singular in the great story of Christianity. You are walking a well-trod road, paved and shaped by those who have traveled and shaped it before us.
All Saints is not just a celebration of those who have died; it is for those who, through and in the Christ, are more alive than ever before. Even as we remember those who have died in the company of our faith, we recall the prophecy of Isaiah: that the Lord will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever.
The profound and, even frustrating paradox, of Christianity is that we can’t speak about death without also speaking about life. For many this is a point of difficulty and of pain: we all know this too well. People trying to comfort a friend after the death of a loved one, frustrating comments that don’t give room for grief. Trying to cover up loss with shallow, temporal words.
Trying to cover up the pain of death with some distant and otherworldly hope.
We could dissect and discuss what are the appropriate responses to death and pain in this world, but at the core, our faith won’t find the perfect answer. Our faith is what forces us into this painful paradox. Christ’s life, death and resurrection drops this simultaneously harsh and beautiful reality into the centre of our faith.
As Christians we believe fundamentally in life. Sometimes annoyingly, sometimes painfully, but most of the times beautifully, we have no other choice. And our journey with those who have gone before us is to live into the mystery of this path.
The eastern church captures this paradox well. If you ever enter into an Eastern Orthodox church building you will certainly notice the icons. But the depictions are not reserved just for Bible stories and images of the cross. The lives of all the saints fill the sanctuary. When we worship, we worship in the company of all the faithful, past and present. You are surrounded by the saints, and you can feel it in the space.
The vision cast in today’s reading from Revelation is one of a corporate faith, one that includes all of the faithful saints. It is about God’s holy city. God’s people. God’s place with man. Many interpretations of Revelation that reveal it is a prophetic description of the Eucharist. That the imagery and language of Paul’s dramatic vision is a mirror of how the early church worshipped, and what they envisioned was happening in the Church’s gatherings to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Consider again these words:
“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
“It is done!” He continues, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty, I will give the spring of the water of life without payment.” God’s vision is to break down the walls of old religion. To be with his people. Religion has always been about satisfying payment, but it is done says the Lord. The springs are opened! The feast is prepared! God’s dwelling place is with man.
The feast of All Saints is a prophetic celebration of that wall breaking down. What is a more profound barrier in the human experience than that of death? All Saints is our celebrated hope for the great and eternal unification of God’s people.
We celebrate this in our prayers, in our remembrance and in our hopes. But nowhere in the Church is this celebration of wall-breaking more profound and more universal than in the Eucharist. A banquet table spread for all who are hungry and thirsty.
It is believed that early persecuted Christians would celebrate God’s great feast of the kingdom underground in the catacombs, atop the tombs of the martyrs. Those killed for their faith. What a picture! A tomb as God’s table of life.
This profound, visceral juxtaposition of life and death has been lost in our modern, sterilised world. We can hardly even bring ourselves to visit a graveyard, much less celebrate Christ’s life-giving, wall-breaking holy meal in the company of those who have died. By doing just this, those early Christians declared our profound hope in the face of profound despair! Breaking down the walls between life and death.
Where else in our lives can we break down the walls of old religion? Where else can we break down the walls between life and death in such a profound way, to join with the all the saints to participate in God’s new dwelling place?
We can often make this true religion so difficult to access. We hide it between many layers of rules, of ritual, of subcultures filled with their own way of speaking, of pride and self-assuredness. If God can offer springs of living water without payment. If Christ can trample down death then surely we can help open the banquet tables?
This is the beauty of the feast of All Saints. You are not alone. Man is not alone.
When you come to the table. When you pray. When you don’t know how to go any further –heaven is with you, and the company of heaven joins in your journey.
When we come together as church, as the gathering of Christ’s body, we affirm the eternal memory of the saints. Of those drawn on our walls and inscribed in our hearts. Of those we knew, know today and our own future selves. It is in and through the saints that we proclaim the victory of eternal life. And when we gather together around the table of Christ’s Great Thanksgiving we celebrate this feast altogether.
Revelation as a prophetic description of the Eucharist is important because it is cosmic. Just like this feast day. It is for all God’s people: past, present and future.
In a few moments we will pray together. Together with those gathered here, with our brothers and sisters in the other churches of Villars, with all Christians around the globe and in all time. We will pray for those who have died. We will pray for those who live, but who feel alone and thirsty for the company of Christ.
No, Christian, you are not alone in this journey. Struggling, doubting, disbelieving, forgetting, not caring, suffering, living, loving and giving thanks. We are not the first and we are not the last. But He who is the first and the last of all the saints, He has set for us a feast atop his holy mountain.