Wednesday, November 01, 2006

All Saints' Day

As a person whose primary strength is "context," All Saints' Day has become, more and more, a favorite day in the church calendar. Somehow, for most of us Protestants, it seems a rather odd celebration and yet, because of our theological amnesia, its role has become central in my own classroom instruction. As was revealed even at our sabbaticant gathering last night, the memories of those who have been close to us and are now gone remain ever fresh--hidden just below the surface. Though they may have been dead for years, somehow their presence seems all-too-real even yet.

In Morning Prayer, we were surrounded by candles and reliquaries holding holy remains--something considered somewhat macabre by many Protestants. And yet, I found it somewhat comforting to think of being surrounded in choir by tangible reminders of those who had gone before. When our daughter, Hannah, died quite unexectedly in the process of trying to be born, my wife and I found quite helpful the opportunity to not only hold her in our arms but to take clippings of her hair and pictures of her precious little body. The nurse who walked us through this grief clearly understood the need to claim the presence of even a child who had never been able to draw a breath this side of the womb.

Last night I received an e-mail from one of the members of my high school graduating class, informing me of the death of one of the prominent members of our class. Karla was an energetic, bright, and warm human being who married the Student Body President, Jason, and followed him and his dreams to Yale. They had four children, two of whom preceded her in death, and now Jason is left alone to grieve this wonderful wife who was taken too early at age 49--another victim of the ravages of cancer. No one can walk the way of grief for him (as C. S. Lewis points out poignantly in his A Grief Observed). For weeks, months, probably for years, he will turn to address her--forgetting that now she is gone.

But, as Christians, we hang onto the hope, not only of seeing our loved ones again someday (in the sweet-by-and-by), but that, somehow, they remain here with us. The early Christians even went so far as to have something of a picnic on the grave of the loved one on the anniversary of their death (so, tomorrow, the monastic community will process out to the cemetery at noonday prayer). Their presence remains ever tangible--separated only by a veil that seems impenetrable to us, the living. In the meantime, during the month of November, we choose to remember and celebrate. In the words of Jesus ben Sirach (chapter 44):

Let us now sing the praises of famous men, our ancestors in their generations. 2 The Lord apportioned to them great glory, his majesty from the beginning. 3 There were those who ruled in their kingdoms, and made a name for themselves by their valor; those who gave counsel because they were intelligent; those who spoke in prophetic oracles; 4 those who led the people by their counsels and by their knowledge of the people's lore; they were wise in their words of instruction; 5 those who composed musical tunes, or put verses in writing; 6 rich men endowed with resources, living peacefully in their homes -- 7 all these were honored in their generations, and were the pride of their times. 8 Some of them have left behind a name, so that others declare their praise. 9 But of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them. 10 But these also were godly men, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten; 11 their wealth will remain with their descendants, and their inheritance with their children's children. 12 Their descendants stand by the covenants; their children also, for their sake. 13 Their offspring will continue forever, and their glory will never be blotted out. 14 Their bodies are buried in peace, but their name lives on generation after generation.