October 28, 2019

Surrounded by the Cloud of Witnesses

On the Feast of All Saints, November 1, the Church gives us an opportunity to reflect on the faith and witness of those who have died in the faith of the Church. In prayer and song, we remember all the saints, “who from their labors rest.” In traditional practice, The Feast of All Saints is the day we remember the Saints with a capital “S”, those who have been recognized by the Church for their faithful life and death The following day, November 2, is the “Commemoration of all Faithful Departed”, when we are encouraged to remember saints with a small “s”, those who have inspired us personally — parents and godparents, teachers, clergy, mentors, and more.

In many churches, the two remembrances are conflated the following Sunday, in a celebration unofficially called “All Saints Sunday.” While the distinctions between the capital “S” Saints and the small “s” saints may be ecclesiastically significant, pastorally, the blending of the two is inspiring and kind. As the secular world recognizes and adapts the Mexican celebration of the “Day of the Dead” more and more — in schools, public libraries, and homes — we can see that we all, at some level, yearn to remember our ancestors in faith, family, and love.

It is relatively common for the names of the faithful departed to be read in the context of the Prayers of the People, or even in the Eucharistic Rite Two, Prayer D. Large churches read the names of those who have died in the previous year. Small churches can invite the names of all who are remembered in heart and mind.

Another practice is to invite members of the congregation to bring images, icons, or photographs of those whose life and faith has formed or inspired them and who are no longer living among us. These images and icons are placed around the room, some resting against a wall, or on non-sacred liturgical furnishings. Others can be clipped to ribbons that are hung around the room. We worship, then, surrounded by the cloud of witnesses. Throughout the liturgy, our eyes drift to our favorite Saint -- Julian of Norwich, or Francis of Assisi – and to our favorite saint – our grandfather, or the professor who encouraged us. And after the liturgy, we share stories -- one woman points to a photo of her daughter who died young and tells of her love and joy, another points to a photo of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and tells the story of his faith even in prison. These images and narratives inspire us to live the life of faith, together.

Another practice is to begin the liturgy on All Saints Sunday with a Litany of Saints. As the names of the Saints are chanted, the congregation responds to each grouping with “Stand here beside us!” The litany is long, a hundred Saints or more, and the congregations chants, “Stand here beside us!”, “Stand here beside us!”. Soon, it seems, the church is filled with them all.
…. Holy ones who died in witness to the Christ: STAND HERE BESIDE US!
Stephen the deacon, the first martyr, stoned in Jerusalem: STAND HERE BESIDE US!
Justin, Ignatius and Polycarp, who refused the incense to Caesar: STAND HERE BESIDE US!
Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, and Nicholas Ridley, burned in Oxford: STAND HERE BESIDE US!
James Reeb, Jonathan Daniels, Viola Liuzzo, shot in Alabama: STAND HERE BESIDE US!
Michael Schwerner, Medgar Evers, shot in Mississippi: STAND HERE BESIDE US!
Martin Luther King, shot in Memphis: STAND HERE BESIDE US!
Janani Luwum, shot in Kampala: STAND HERE BESIDE US!
Oscar Romero, shot in San Salvador: STAND HERE BESIDE US!
The litany ends with a Collect, then a full throttled singing of the peerless hymn, For All The Saints breaks forth.

While the heavenly host is with us each and every Sunday when we gather, on this day, with their images all around us, we are given a powerful awareness of ourselves surrounded by the faithful cloud of witnesses and part of a community, the church, a Body, far greater and more populated that the one we see and greet Sunday by Sunday. And when we join with angels and Archangels, and all the company of heaven singing Holy, Holy, Holy, we know we are not in this life alone. Far from it.