No one can deny the power of a unified crowd.  The shared joy of a well earned touchdown and the communal boo toward a mistaken referee are common this time of year, especially when the stakes are high.  The Musket Bowl (a local high school football tradition) is a prime example.  Since 1971, every Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone game has proven preparatory for this pinnacle of competition.  Even a casual observer (like me) cannot help but to become swept up in the momentum of emotion.

One could even make the argument that this experience is spiritual.  Think about it.  Being connected to a cause larger than oneself, empathizing with players and coaches, and emotional surges are indeed factual.  But the argument for “spiritual athletics” has less to do with the game and more to do with our humanness.  We are hard wired for connection and community.  Meeting those needs is an ancient activity.  That is why history reveals the practice of ancestor worship.

 Practitioners of ancestral worship believe that family members who have died hold special powers over this world.  Therefore, correct homage would ensure the worshiper good luck, protection from evil and a boost in the life to come.  Christianity rejects this notion based on the Judeo-Christian theology of an all powerful God.  God alone has power to give fortune or protection and is the final judge in the life to come.

 None the less, the human need to connect with our past and past relatives cannot be denied.  All Saints day is a Christian holiday, traditionally celebrated on November 1.  It began in the early church as a day to remember the martyrs that had suffered death under political powers that opposed Christianity.  But when Christianity became the national religion in 313AD, the holiday has morphed into a time of remembrance of deceased Christians that molded the current generation.

The scripture verse that captures the sentiment of All Saints Day is found in Hebrews 11-12.  In Chapter 11, the writer weaves a chronology of Biblical heroes, highlighting how they suffered.  The tale climaxes with Chapter 12, verse 1, encouraging the current Christian generation to persevere every trial.  The verse characterizes the list of heroes as “a great cloud of witnesses” that exists in the present tense.  The idea presented is that current Christians stand on the shoulders of those that have passed on.  Our work continues their work and the ancestral line leads back to the sufferings and striving of Christ.  In that thread, All Saints Day is a time to recall those who formed us spiritually.  We reflect upon their dedication and strive to follow their passion and zeal for holiness.

Take the example of the popular movie The Lion King.  As a cub, Simba believes the lie carved by his evil Uncle Scar that he is indeed responsible for his father’s death.  Simba exiles himself from the lion pride.  The adult Simba encounters Rafikki(the baboon/holy man).  Rafikki challenges his to remember his father.  Simba’s supernatural experience with this memory leads to an epiphany. Simba is like his father in many reguards and therefore worthy to return home and claim his rightful place as King.  The image of Simba’s father ends with the command to “Remember”.  Through family connection, Simba discovers a foundation for his identity.

 All Saints Day pulpit challenges

 This scene is the turning point in the movie.  A pastor’s best hope would be that All Saints Day would be a turning point in the lives of attendees.  The preaching challenge is not to water All Saints Day down or allow hearers of the word to dilute the spiritual connection.  Remember a great saint does not mean keeping everything the same, as the great saint remembered would have preferred.  Remembering a great saint would be recalling the spirit in which the saint sacrificed and connecting that vigor to the acts of Christ, thus giving direction for the hearer’s life.  This is a challenge for the preacher in communicating the depth of the good news.

I read a short non-fictional piece in a magazine while in a waiting room.  It was a gardening magazine.  The writer, who spoke in first person, told about the shock of receiving a cancer diagnosis.  As she processed the news and calculated her next medical step, a random thought began to reoccur.  She should begin canning…peaches.  Her grandmother and mother had canned but she had not learned.  So she poured herself into learning and night after night she canned.  In reflection, she comments how she could feel her grandmother and mother canning with her.  She visualized the hands of those loved ones tightening the jars and pouring in the fruit. Through this activity she found a reprieve from the diagnosis and strength through the connection. 

For All Saints Day, this story only takes the Christian part way.  For us, the activity is not canning fruit, the activity is holy living.  And this holy living not only connects the one or two generations.  Holy living is following in the footsteps of a long line of saints.  The line ends with Christ (although you could argue Hebrews 11 and end the line with Abraham/Sara or even Adam/Eve).

The temptation of All Saints Day is to use it as a form of idolatry.  It’s one thing to keep a shrine for the sake of grieving and remembering.  It’s another to keep everything the same to somehow please the one who has passed.  This thinking borders on ancestor worship.

Pastorally speaking, inviting remembrance through the lens of Christ does present a problem when those remembered were anything but Christian.  Every church has members whose names may be displayed on All Saints Day simply because they have died and they were members.  The church may or may not be familiar with them.  At worst, the family knows the deceased were only nominal Christians and remembrance of them drudges up family secrets.   These names by no means should be deleted.  Rather, the preacher may want to emphasize other aspects of All Saints Day:  the work of Christ in whom we follow or a focus on historical saints.

Another pastoral point that may be of value is the fact that some deaths may be fresh wounds.  By that I mean the death was unexpected or tragic.  The entire congregation may have been shocked by the news.  These events need special pastoral care.  Pastoral care in a congregation setting must match the congregation’s culture.  I have found success in special prayers and rubrics that prove meaningful to the family and congregation.  For example:  lighting candles, prayer at the altar, laying on of hands, prayers that focus on healing and hope, flowers, bulletin inserts.

 The Bottom Line

 Through that act of remembrance we are connected to something greater than ourselves.  We are connected to a line of saints whose acts imitate those of Christ.  Like common teammates extended throughout history, we suffer the same pains and we cheer the same victories.  This shared pain and victory gives strength and wisdom for life’s challenges.