JB Philips deserves the prize for greatest book title ever for his 1953 Christian classic, Your God Is Too Small.
If I was writing a book about All Saints’ Day, I would steal Philips’ title and call my book, Your Community Is Too Small.
Our vision of what community means includes too few people. Too often we exclude people who may live their faith in ways that look different than the ways we live our faith. We exclude believers whose theology or spiritual practice differs even slightly from our own, or whose worship practice does not conform to our pattern, or who live by a slightly different set of moral standards. We isolate ourselves from those who make us feel uncomfortable or awkward. This is not the vision of church that is enshrined in All Saints’ Day.
All Saints’ Day invites us to consider the possibility that, beyond all the superficial divisions we create in relation to other people, our vision of community is too small because we fail to take into consideration the full community of all the saints visible and invisible who have lived their faith down through the ages and across unimaginable barriers of cultural and historical differences.
In All Saints’ Day we seek to embrace the vision of the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews that
we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses. (Hebrews 12:1)
All Saints’ Day exists to remind us that the community of faith is not confined to those people with whom we agree, or those we like, or those who live their faith in the same manner we live our faith. It is not even confined to those people we can see, hear, and touch in this time-bound material realm on the physical plain with which we are so familiar.
Those who have gone before and whose presence we no longer perceive with our senses, are not gone; they have not ceased to exist. Their presence and influence in life continue to be real. On All Saints’ Day we celebrate our trust that the whole host of humanity is held in the hands of love, nothing has been wasted, no life has been lost.
The Apostles’ Creed invites us to affirm,
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
But it goes on immediately to describe this “holy catholic Church,” in the most expansive terms possible. The “holy catholic Church” in which we believe, is not confined to any temporal institutional manifestation; it reaches out to embrace all
the communion of saints.
When we gather for worship, we are not alone. The visible community may be small, but it is merely an outpost of the vast gathering of the saints whose praises ring out over eons of time.
The dense barrier we perceive between life as it manifests on this physical material plane and life in the vast realm of eternity is less impermeable than we perceive. All Saints’ Day invites us to enter into an awareness of the ultimate spacious place that is the mystery of the “communion of saints”.
Every Sunday in church, before the children go downstairs, we sing a short song and light a candle that is placed on the altar. Often I tell the children that we do this to remind us that, even when we can’t see them, they are still with us. They don’t know it now, but one day perhaps they will become aware that in this simple action we are preparing them to one day observe All Saints’ Day. We are teaching them that things we cannot see are still real. We are encouraging them to perceive that the community of which they are a part in the church is bigger than their own little lives. They are part a great mystical body of faith and love that transcends the narrow confines of what we usually think of as community. These are the deep lessons of All Saints’ Day.