Remarks by prof. Dwight Vogel
SURROUNDED BY SO GREAT A CLOUD OF WITNESSES
Christ Church Episcopal, Ontario, California, November 1, 2017
Canon Dwight W. Vogel, OSL
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” --- this text from Hebrews provides the scriptural foundation for our reflections on the Feast of All Saints.
I bring to this conversation my perspective as a United Methodist elder. I live out my baptism as a life-vowed member of the Order of Saint Luke, an ecumenical order with its roots in the Wesleyan tradition, devoted to the importance of the sacraments in both our corporate and our individual spiritual life, an order not to be confused with its younger sibling, the Order of Saint Luke the Physician.
The Festive Evensong for the Feast of All Saints for the Order of Saint Luke includes in its opening hymn this stanza from “Ye watchers and ye holy ones”:
Respond, ye souls in endless rest,
Ye patriarchs and prophets blest, Alleluia!
Ye holy twelve, ye martyrs strong,
All saints triumphant, raise the song. Alleluia!
No names, just an all embracing invitation!
But why saints at all? How did they come to play the role they do in the life of the Church? And what is that role? How did it all come to be?
Michael Driscoll asserts that “the veneration of the saints is related to the cult of the dead” widely practiced in Greek and Roman culture, as well among the Jews in connection with the tombs of the patriarchs.
In the early church, its origin is in the commemoration of the victims of the persecutions, the martyrs. While the word martyrion means simply “witness,” it was restricted in early Christian usage to those who witnessed by dying for their faith. While in Greco-Roman culture, commemoration of the dead took place on their birthday, the early Church celebrated it on the day of their death, their spiritual birthday, if you will, into the communion of the saints in Light.
These commemorations were generally localized and took place near the tomb of the martyr. Often the Eucharist was celebrated giving the commemoration a communitarian dimension in which those observing the commemoration became brothers and sisters of the martyr in faith. This linked the sacrifice on Calvary with the self-sacrifice of the martyr. Driscoll writes:
The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ constituted the paschal mystery which began for each Christian at baptism and was fulfilled and completed in death.
In the third century sanctoral calendars were developed as local churches composed lists of martyrs and confessors (that is,, those who confessed their faith but didn’t die for it) along with their date of death and place of burial. About the same time, we discover from the graffiti of the period, Christians began to pray to the martyrs to intercede to God on their behalf.
I grew up in a religious tradition that knew nothing of such a practice. So during the days of Vatican II, when a brother in the Society of Mary my wife Linda had known from childhood came for lunch, we found ourselves asking each other questions, neither of us having known an informed member of the other tradition before.
“Why do you pray to the saints,” I asked. “Do you every ask someone to pray for you?” Br. David responded. “Oh, yes, often” I said. “Do you believe in the communion of the saints?” was the next question. A bit more hesitantly this time, I said: “well, in the creed I say I do.”
“Then why can’t you ask someone who has died to pray for you or someone else?” he asked. I didn’t start praying to the saints right away but over time, it’s a practice that has naturally evolved. And I would testify that it has made the communion of the saints much more real to me.
The Second Vatican Council puts it this way:
The authentic cult of the saints does not consist so much in a multiplicity of external acts, but rather in a more intense practice of our love, whereby, for our own greater good and that of the Church, we seek from the saints example in their way of life, fellowship in their communion, and the help of their intercession. . . .Our communion with those in heaven . . . understood in the full light of faith in no way diminishes the worship of adoration given to God the Father through Christ in the Spirit; on the contrary, it greatly enriches it.
The Feast of All Saints itself first arose in the East as a celebration of all the nameless martyrs of the persecutions. This resonates with a part of my autobiography: for some years I was Dean of the Chapel of the Unnamed Faithful at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.
In Rome the Feast of All Saints was first celebrated in 609 on May 13 when the Pantheon became a Christian church honoring Mary and all martyrs. It was in the early eighth century, under Gregory III, that a chapel honoring the Savior, Mary, the apostles, martyrs, and confessors was opened in St. Peter’s Basilica, probably on November 1. This date and feast spready quickly throughout the West, particularly in England, followed by the northern countries. Note that the widening inclusion of persons venerated now generates the use of the word “saints.”
A consideration of the history of this feast would be incomplete without recognizing the corollary development of the Feast of All Souls, rooted in the ritual practice of many lands, cultures and religious traditions of remembering the dead. As early as 636, liturgies remembering the dead were held in various places on various dates. The in 998, November 2 was prescribed as the date for this liturgy for all Cluniac houses. This custom spread rapidly through northern Europe, but was only accepted by Rome in the 13th century.
Such a feast was easily assimilated with a wide variety of folk customs and practices through the years, the description of which is beyond the limits of this presentation. However, it serves as a reminder that remembering the dead, whether of personal friends and relatives, unknown faithful, or of widely acclaimed exemplars of faith and life, will inevitably be colored by local traditions.
With this brief nod to the feast’s early history, I want now to focus on contemporary practice and its theological significance in my own study and experience.
Although the father in faith of my religious tradition, John Wesley, makes little mention of other liturgical dates in his journal (even including Christmas and Easter!), he often describes All Saints Day as a day very near to his heart. That said, his followers did not follow his example, and until the liturgical renewal movement of the twentieth century, the feast of All Saints was seldom celebrated among the people called Methodists. But that has changed, for it is now widely celebrated on All Saints Sunday (without noting that it has been “transferred.”) The Order of Saint Luke, however, celebrates it on November 1.
I need to set this Feast in a wider context, however. Apart from naming a number of Methodist churches after major figures in the New Testament, little if any reference is made to a sanctoral cycle. If we are to celebrate all the saints, we have to know something about them. In the introduction to the sanctoral cycle in A Lukan Book of Feasts and Holy Days, I wrote:
Food for pilgrims on this journey toward holiness can be found in the prayers of the sanctoral cycle, those days in the church calendar which commemorate saints whose example can guide us on the Way. In the early church, some of these were celebrated throughout the church; others were observed only in particular places. As time went by, more and more saints were added to the sanctoral calendar until it threatened to overshadow the great feasts of the Church. Martin Luther, John Wesley, and Vatican II all set about to simplify the calendar. For many of us, the task is to enrich our calendar with the sanctoral cycle rather than to simply it.
For many United Methodists, one point of entry is the Feast of All Saints.
Why do we call days of special significance to our faith community “feasts”? What is the nature and function of liturgical feasts? And how does that help us understand the Feast of All Saints?
We know that sharing stories, food, and sign-acts are fundamental to the development of human communities. When these events of sharing embody the identity of a community in significant ways, such meaning events are often called “feasts.” Feasts have been important community experiences throughout history and in diverse cultures.
Alexander Schmemann, noted Eastern Orthodox liturgical theologian, notes that Christianity accepted these components of the fundamentally human phenomenon of feast as a way of putting meaning into life.
However, in addition to these universal characteristics, Schmemann notes that there are additional dimensions of meaning for feasts in Christianity. Christian feasts are enriched by their relation to the paschal mystery, that is, by our incorporation into the Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and consummation. The point of connection with the Feast of All Saints is found in the resurrection hope and the eschatological understanding of the communion of the saints in Light. Indeed, Laurence Hull Stookey, noted Methodist liturgical scholar insists that “All Saints Day is a thanksgiving for the grace and power of Christ at work . . .”
My beloved wife Linda, an ordained deacon and noted Christian educator, who was in the last weeks of her life just a year ago, taught me that some folks learn best through visual images and all of us learn more when we honor them.
So I invite you to imagine you are constructing a visual center for the celebration of All Saints, either a sort of iconostasis, a wall of icons, or perhaps a Day of the Dead altar.
Central to that, imagine a symbol or icon or painting which will be a representation or re-presentation of the paschal mystery that is significant for you.
What might that be? A moment to think and imagine and then we’ll share.
Share: Tree of Life Cross Mosaic from Basilica San Clemente in Rome
combining creation symbols with paschal mystery
I think its important to keep this Christological focus central. Its easy to let the heroes of faith get in the way rather than hear their testimony!
To build on Schmemann’s insights, we recognize that feasts are communal events that re-member the past as we are nourished by stories into which the community enters (anamnesis). Feasts embody the deep mysteries and rich symbols of the Tradition. This is clearly present in the Feast of All Saints as it celebrates those in the past who have modeled for us what it means to walk the Way of Jesus.
Music, as well as the visual is a way we can come to deeper understanding.
To do this, I turn not to one of the great old hymns of the Church, or even to the extremely relevant text of the Te Deum, but rather to words written in the 1920’s by Lesbia Scott of England for children to sing on the Feast of All Saints. If my information is correct, it has become a favorite of both Methodist and Episcopal folk in America. Sometimes it is in the language of religious folk culture that we uncover the depth dynamics underlying the significance of the celebration.
The text starts out with a traditional enough view:
I sing a song of the saints of God
patient and brave and true,
who toiled and fought and lived and died
for the Lord they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor and one was a queen
and one was shepherdess on the green:
They were all of them saints of God . . . .
Let’s interrupt the song right there for the moment. Here we have my beloved patron St. Luke and St. Margaret of Scotland and Joan of Arc, saints in the traditional meaning of the word, acknowledged by the Church in many times and places.
Let’s add to our wall of icons, moving first to New Testament persons who have been especially important on our faith journey. Who would you want to be sure to include?
Share: Mary, our Lady of Guadalupe original to remind me of cross cultural testimonies and St. Luke, my patron saint
The second stanza of Scott’s hymn continues the theme:
They loved their Lord, so dear, so dear,
and God’s love made them strong;
and they followed the right, for Jesus’ sake
the whole of their good lives long.
And one was a soldier and one was a priest
and one was slain by a fierce wild beast . . .
While the saints in the first stanza are unnamed, we can make a good guess as to who they are. We could do that in the second stanza too but even if we restrict it to the canonized saints of the church, more than one soldier and priest and martyred person will fit.
Thr circle is widening. What saints from second century to the twentieth would you want to include on your wall of icons? There are so many but name one.
I would have to include St. Francis of Assisi and St. Clare and Brendan the Navigator, and Hildegaard of Bingen – but there’s only so much space on our wall!
Feasts do more than remember the past. Feasts also celebrate the present, generating, celebrating, and embodying the community’s identity. Our sense of the deep significance of our community’s identity is birthed even as we celebrate together.
Part of our imaginary wall of icons might refer to the heroes of our particular faith tradition. Who would those be for you?
Interestingly, I’d want to name Thomas Cranmer, for he was such an influence on John Wesley, the other person I’d have to include.
Such persons help us remember that the significance of this feast is not something “out there,” separate from us. It is part of our being, our thinking, our doing. These feasts express, sustain, and empower the community’s way of being in the world. This understanding is incarnate in the text of “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God” but goes beyond it to prod us to reflect on what it meant for these saints to be faithful in an alien culture, the cost of standing for the right in the presence of cultural patterns and powers that were wrong.
When I consider that wall of icons in my imagination, I realize that most of my more recent saints are people who have helped me understand what it means to be faithful in an alien culture, what my baptism means as together we face our being in the world. Who would you want to have on your wall in this regard? Who are your exemplars of faith and life here?
Mother Terresa -- Oscar Romero
Yes, the circle is widening. But not yet wide enough! Lesbia Scott goes on to give a ringing affirmation:
They lived not only in ages past;
there are hundreds of thousands still;
the world is bright with the joyous saints
who love to do Jesus’ will.
You can meet them in school or in lanes, or at sea
in church or in trains or in shops or at tea,
for the saints of God are just folk like me . . .
And just like that, we are plunged behind the traditionally popular meaning of the word saint to the first century followers of the Way who came to be called Christians. To take just one example, from Romans 1:7:“To all in Rome who are beloved of God, called to be saints.” The word "saint" is derived from a Greek verb hagiazo meaning "to set apart, " "sanctify, " or "make holy."
However, in the words of the introduction to the sanctoral cycle in A Lukan Book of Feasts and Holy Days we find a precaution.
In all this, it is important to recognize that the saints we are remembering were human beings who had their own weaknesses and shortcomings, just as we do. In praying the sanctoral cycle, the Holy Spirit works within us, bringing our baptismal spirituality to fruition as part of the communion of saints in the household of faith, the kin-dom of God.
So Lesbia Scott, singing with the soul of children who have not been as contaminated with the cynicism of the world as we are, dares to affirm: “for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”
The entry for the Feast of All Saints in The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship concludes:
All Saints is both a look back at those who have gone before, as well as a commitment to what we must become: a holy people united together by our common life in God. It is a hope of our future glory in the new and eternal Jerusalem.
All Saints is thus an eschatogical feast wrapping up past, present and future understandings of its nature.
There is one more component to the Feast of All Saints in many United Methodist churches, though certainly not restricted to them, and including our celebration at Pilgrim Place. The reading of a memorial roll of persons in the congregation who have died in the past year has more and more frequently moved from the Sunday closest to Memorial Day to the Feast of All Saints. That this is not just local custom but a recognized practice is made clear in the introductory comments regarding All Saints in The United Methodist Book of Worship:
All Saints (November 1 or the first Sunday in November) is a day of remembrance for the saints, with the New Testament meaning of all Christian people of every time and place. We celebrate the communion of saints as we remember the dead, both of the Church universal and of our local congregations. For this reason, the names of persons in the congregation who have died during the past year may be solemnly read as a Response to the Word.
Here we see the influence of All Souls Day and the practices of the Day of the Dead appear, folded into the Feast of All Saints.
So let’s go to the table at the bottom of our imaginary visual center and include persons in our lifetime who have been “saints” for us on our journey.
Esther Vogel Linda Vogel
One of the delights in churches which I’ve served or been part of has been reclaiming the annual Hallow-e’n party to become an all saints party with adults, youth and children coming dressed as their favorite saint. The first year they tended to all be traditional saints, but as deeper understandings emerged, some of the saints became more and more contemporary, until, in an anniversary year, some of the founders of the congregation showed up!
This whole process, it seems to me, has been one of reclaiming the deeper meaning of saint as the word is used in the New Testament.
However feasts not only re-member the past, and celebrate the present. Feasts shape the future. In feasts, we envision a future hope that transforms how we act in the present (prolepsis). They enable us to see beyond the immediate situation with “gospel eyes” and call us to act in preparation for that future. They celebrate not only who we are, but who we are becoming. If we live into our celebration of All Saints, remembering the past and celebrating our community in the present, it will affect how we live, how we understand what it means to live out our baptism in the world we have on our hands as we live into the kin-dom of God.
Feasts, Schmeamnn teaches us, are the seal of the Holy Spirit on the faith, hope and love of the Church, a sacramental transformation of life into joy and freedom. This revelation and the gift of joy which comes with it are not a reward for anything in us, but grace, God’s pure gift to us. Thus, for us, they are a witness to joy given to the Church for the life of the world. These celebrations enable us to embody joy as a transforming power in the world, and as we well know, and God knows even more, that is a transforming power sorely needed in our day.
In your experience, how have these dimensions of past, present and future been a part of The Feast of All Saints?
In The Book of Feasts and Holy Days of the Order of Saint Luke, the Going Forth of Festive Evensong for the Feast of Any Saint reads:
Witnesses in faith, in prayer, and in deed,
holy in life, perfected in love,
with us on earth, around us in heaven
your faithful witness [ . . . .] points to the Way.
Strong Word of God, send us forth
with that great company of saints
to bear good news for your sake,
and for the sake of the world.
Which brings us back to the scriptural foundation with which we began:
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,[a] and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of[b] the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:1-2
So let it be.