This coming week, we celebrate the triduum (or “three days”) of “Allhallowtide.” Allhallowtide begins with everyone’s favorite of the three days, called “All Hallow’s Eve” – or, “Halloween” – continues through All Saints Day, and concludes with All Souls Day, on which we remember the faithful departed. Next to the triduum of the Passion Week, these are the holiest consecutive days in the church calendar.
And at the heart of these three days is a call for us to remember our deaths.
Some of you may know that the church doesn’t observe the birthdays of saints, but their “death-days.” In fact, the original name for All Saints Day was the “Feast of the Martyrs,” precisely because what so often made a saint “a saint” was their having a “good death.” At a fundamental level, the saints are those who faced their death, and embraced their mortality. In the first century, when Polycarp of Smyrna went to the lions rather than declaring that Caesar was Lord, just as in the 20th century, when Dietrich Bonhoeffer went to the death camps for saying that Hitler wasn’t Lord either – they showed that they did not fear death, but instead saw death as just another step on their journey to God. As Bonhoeffer said right before he went to the gallows: “For me this is the end but also the beginning of life.”
And yet we don’t celebrate the saints because they had noble deaths. That’s not the point. We don’t honor the saints as if they were superheroes of the faith, as if they were knights in shining armor gallantly storming the gates of hell. In the end, it’s the other way around entirely. In living toward their deaths, the saints lived a wholly different sort of life. Living toward their deaths set the saints free from the temptation to be like gods – set them free from the aspiration for power – and so freed them to take the low road of weakness, gentleness, and humility, in order to serve, not their own legacies, but to serve the least and the last and the lost.
That’s what happened to Martin of Tours in the 4th century. Martin was an officer in the Roman army when he came across a beggar at the gate of Amiens, and something deep inside him told him to tear his cloak in two and cover the man. From that day forward, Martin dedicated his life to caring for the poor and the destitute. In the 19th century, Therese of Lisieux was just a French teenager when she became convinced that God’s love is found in what she called “the little way” of everyday acts of justice and mercy. When she got around to writing her autobiography at the ripe old age of twenty-three, her life had been so taken up in this “little way” that she neglects to tell her readers she was dying of tuberculosis. Bonhoeffer, too, was a wealthy, rising star in the Berlin firmament when he took his stand on behalf of an oppressed people. But writing to a friend from prison, Bonhoeffer said, in effect: ‘Don’t feel sorry for me. I’m no victim. I’ve discovered true freedom.’
In the final analysis, what the saints do for the church is show us a different way to live – a better way to live.
To me, they are an example of what St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians chapter twelve. 1 Corinthians 12 is Paul’s most developed teaching on what it means to be the church. “There is one body, with many members,” he says. Each has its own purpose. None can say to any other: “I don’t need you.” And then, at the climax of that chapter – at the climax of his description of the life of the church – St. Paul writes this: “The members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect.” (1 Cor. 12.22-23). That is what the church is supposed to look like. And the saints are the ones who knew this.
What about us? What about you?
In a poignant conversation with theologian Stanley Hauerwas, Henry Nouwen writes: “I have never seen [these verses from 1 Corinthians] as the first line of a book [about the church]! Who really believes it? …. Do we really believe that the weakest, the least presentable, those who hide away – that they are indispensable?”
Dear saints of God––Church of the Incarnation––let us be ones who believe it.