Befriending the Dead: Reflections on All Saints’ Weekend
- October 28th, 2019
Halloween is upon us! And while I struggle with my own deep denial about the Beggar’s Night forecast (brrr!), I am also turning my attention to the weekend that will follow.
The practice of celebrating All Saints Day is an ancient one. According to my trusty (and rarely consulted) Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, there are references to All Saints celebrations dating back to the 4th century. In keeping with our Protestant priesthood-of-all-believers ethos, we tend to emphasize the “All” in “All Saints.” Our focus is usually on the idea that “saint” is not some title reserved for the spiritual elite; all of us are saints.
But this year, as we continue our sermon series on friendship, I find my mind drifting to a different topic. I believe that Christian faith is the practice of befriending the dead.
On Halloween, the dead supposedly return to haunt the living. They come uninvited and create creepy disturbances. My teacher, Richard Fenn, once suggested that ghost stories can be seen as an instance of a dynamic Freud described: the return of the repressed.
But we believe our dead are at peace. I don’t like to wade too deeply into the specifics when it comes to the afterlife, but my own hope for my deceased loved ones is captured in the Prayer of Commendation from the funeral liturgy:
Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant [NAME] Acknowledge, we humbly pray, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, and a [son/daughter] of your redeeming. Receive [her/him] into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the company of the saints in light.
Our dead are safe with God. They have no restlessness, no unfinished business, no need to haunt us. They are at peace.
So instead of being haunted by our dead, we can befriend them. The author of the New Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews puts it this way:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…(Hebrews 12:1).
This is a sports analogy. We, the living, have a race to run. They, the dead, are watching closely, seated in the stands, rooting for us.
Can I make a confession? I sometimes find myself taking to the dead. Sometimes it is people I knew in life; sometimes it is people I never had the opportunity to meet but who seem real to me nevertheless. (My predecessor, Stoddard Lane, is one of these). Mostly I draw strength from the sense that they have my back, that they are supporting me; that they are, in some sense that I do not understand but deeply feel, rooting for me and for all of us.
This is one of the great gifts of the Christian faith: we are no alone.
Surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses, we press on!