If you follow the madness that is Lent Madness you were no-doubt excited to see that the 2018 bracket has come out and the slate of select saints has been posted. In the coming year, throughout Lent, people will mark their daily ballots and on Easter Day some lucky saint will be awarded the Golden Halo. There’s no cash award associated with the prize. To date, all the winners have been dead. Or, perhaps not!
Today is not just the 22nd Sunday After Pentecost, it’s also the day we observe All Saints Day. It is the day set aside to remember, and maybe even commune with, those followers of the Jesus Path who have died to one kind of life and entered into another kind of life. We say they are dead, but we know that they are not. That’s why we honor them.
There are lots of ways to honor the dead. While we Christians observe All Saints Day, other traditions observe Dia de Los Muertos, which is a sort-of triduum of days honoring the dead in different ways, pagans observe Samhain. Buddhists, particularly in Japan, have already observed Bon. In South Korea, they observe Chuseok, which is conflated with a harvest festival but also honors the dead with offerings of rice and remembrances. Here in China, there are several festivals to honor and remember the dead. the most well-known is Qingming, or Tomb Sweeping Day, and the other is Hungry Ghost Festival when it is thought that the departed can re-enter this realm to relieve their after-life suffering by partaking of a little rice. So, you can see that traditions vary, but honoring the dead and relating to them as if they still possess some form of life is nearly universal.
Mainly, people will remember those whom they have actually known, people who have touched their lives in some way, or to whom they have a duty. Other practices, though, enable us to think about and commune with those saints who were particularly holy. Whether it is a fun event like Lent Madness or something more solemn like praying a Litany of Saints, we are reminded that these great ones are part of our community — our communion — of saints.
It may seem difficult to think of yourself as part of such august company as The Blessed Virgin Mary, but some of the big-name saints might be more relatable than you think. Nobody is perfect, after all. Even the saints have had their moments.
You probably know that I am talking about the illustrious Saint Augustine. Despite the earnest prayers of his pious mother, he lived a life of relentless debauchery before converting to Christianity, once going so far as to pray, “Lord, make me chaste — but not yet.” Now, that’s pretty relateable.
Other saints — and the list is long — were more likely to have been mentally ill than holy. Saint Francis is one. He was known to be inappropriately naked and once kissed a leper on the mouth. Saint Christina the Astonishing was given over to self-harm and anthrophobia, claiming that human sin stank so badly that she couldn’t be around people. Then there’s the greatest man ever born, Saint John the Baptist. He lived in a cave and ate bugs. I am not a psychologist, so I can’t say for sure, but that sounds marginally crazy to me.
Those are just the saints for whom we can prove some historicity. There are other saints who are so far removed from reality that they may not even have existed! There were doubts about so many of the saints, in fact, that in 1969 Pope Paul VI had to tighten up the list, though doubt remains about a few. Take Saint Expidito, for example. You can call on him to help you get a package delivered on time, or for other things that need to be done expeditiously. But his “name” may have come from a package containing relics of someone else but marked “Expidito.” It’s still a great story. The story of Saint Josaphat is now recognized to be the Christianized story of Gautama Buddha. Most famously, Saint Christopher, rumored to have been martyred by Decius, turns out not to have existed at all. It’s just another good story.
If so many of the saints were so unsaintly, then why should we even bother to remember them? It seems like some of them, most notably those who didn’t even exist, should just be relegated to the dustbin of history. Saint Augustine was surely a worthless cad, after all. The mentally ill should be given compassionate care, not twisted into something that meets society’s needs more than theirs. As for those who were so fake as to be, well, fake? You have to shake your head and laugh.
The reason we remember all the saints: the good, the bad, the crazy, and the totally fake is because we don’t judge people based on the worst things they’ve ever said or done. That’s not right, and the Bible says so.
Matthew 7:1… Don’t judge, Luke 6:37… Don’t judge. James 4:11, Romans 2:1, Romans 14:3, the woman caught in adultery. Adultery! It’s one of The Big Ten of Sin! Jesus didn’t judge her. Jesus said, “I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.” Judging one another is not part of Jesus’s mission and it shouldn’t be part of ours either.
Today is the last chance — as far as the honoring-the-dead season goes — to remember those dead who are dear to you. Whether they were saintly, or just loved for who they were, this is the day to draw them near. But, as you are doing that, look around. The very living, flesh-covered faces in your home and your community are saints too… future saints, anyway.
In one tradition people build an altar to honor the dead and along with photographs of the dead, they place a mirror or two. In that way when you look at the altar that honors the dead you can remember that you will be dead one day too, and you will one day be among the saints. Maybe you will not be one of the holier saints. You might have a past. You’re in good and saintly company if you do. You might be mentally ill. You’re in good and saintly company too. You might have messed up your life so badly that it’s hard to tell where you end and the lies begin. But, you are in good company too. Jesus did not come to judge you. Jesus came to save, to give life to the living and hope to the dying.
So whether your saint wins the Golden Halo or just accompanies you on your daily rounds, let them whisper in your ear reminding you that you too are a member of this august company of saints, adulterers, liars, and fakes. There are no outcasts, not for any reason. There is no sin unforgiven. The community of saints is all of us. Yes, even you and me.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
You can read all about Lent Madness here.
You can check out the church calendar here. You may want to note that All Saints Day was actually November 1, but it can be observed the following Sunday. Also of note, there are only three more Sundays until the First Sunday of Advent, and of greater interest will be the very abbreviated Advent that we have this year. It’s really only three weeks long! It has the regular four Sunday’s, but only 22 days in total.
All Saints is a little different than All Souls Day. On All Souls Day, we pray for those who have died but not yet quite made it into Heaven. On All Saints Day, we remember those saints who have actually been canonized as well as those who have not, but they are all already in the glory of Heaven.
Here is an article explaining how we got the date of All Saints Day as well as it syncretic connection to the Celtic holiday of Samhain.
You can read about how to pray the Litany of Saints at ChurchPOP, a Roman Catholic-affiliated site.
You may be wondering how Halloween fits into it. In Old English Hallows just means a feast of saints. So, Hallow Eeen is just the evening before that. The evening before the Feast of All Saints.
John 12:47… “If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.” — NIV
Image: Dancing Saints at St Gregory of Nyssa – on pinterest