All religions attempt to make sense of death.
Death is an enemy, the ultimate enemy. It represents an exit from what we know into what we don’t know.
While our religion has some effect on how we grieve, grief is a universal response to loss. Everyone grieves. It’s our rituals and customs that vary and these are subject to change over generations.
Early Christians took note of those who died as martyrs. Noting their ultimate sacrifice, the anniversary of the martyr’s death was remembered, a feast was held, and the goodness of the martyred one sank deeper into the memory banks of Jesus’ followers.
However, as the number of martyrs increased, this practice became impractical.
Instead of multiple acknowledgments, the church chose a single day, the first Sunday after Pentecost, to venerate the heroes of the faith.
While few Americans are dying as martyrs, we are still dying. Death is still our enemy. We will not overcome it. We still struggle with our mortality and grief is still our response to loss.
All Saints Day has become an occasion for the church to recall those who have died and remember those who continue to grieve their loss. Properly observed, the day can be one where we celebrate their lives, process our grief, and claim it as a day of hope!
While tears may be shed, like the days of old when feasts were spread in honor of the martyrs, it is a day to affirm the lessons taught by our loved ones and the lessons they continue to teach even though we are without their physical presence.
It is a reminder that we are going to travel the same road they have traveled. One day, we will follow them to the grave and to our heavenly home made possible by Christ our Lord.
Knowing that, what difference, if any, does it make in how we live?
A friend of mine named Becky Stowe was diagnosed with cancer for a second time in June 2015. Her breast cancer went to her liver and from the day of diagnosis to the day of her death, her journey spanned, in her husband’s words, “58 remarkable days.”
Becky emerged as a person with a transforming perspective on life and the disease that had been assigned to her. She even got to the point toward the end that she expressed to her husband Roy that even if she could, she would not rewind the clock.
She believed she was where she was supposed to be, chosen for the moment she was in. People who came to see Becky left uplifted and with a different perspective on life than when they arrived.
One of those moments came 12 days before she died. Becky’s sister Anita, her brother David along with his wife Norma and their son Jackson, and 15-year-old niece Maggie were visiting with Becky and Roy in their family room.
Maggie and Becky used to go to the salon together, so Maggie got the idea that she could paint Becky’s toenails. Becky agreed and directed Maggie upstairs where she found some nail polish.
With Becky’s feet propped up on the recliner, Maggie lovingly and carefully painted each toenail. When she was finished, Maggie asked, “Where do you want me to put these bottles of nail polish?” Becky replied, “Just throw them away.”
Roy said, “We all got it.” He said that while it was obvious that he should say something to break the ice, David spoke first: “Well, how liberating is that?”
Becky said, “It’s just incredible to know that you are going to die and that you don’t have anything to worry about and none of this stuff has any value, nothing to bind you. It’s just extraordinarily liberating.”
Typically, martyrs could have escaped death had they just renounced Jesus. They died because they didn’t. They had been liberated by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. His Spirit filled them and empowered them.
People were often as amazed at what they taught as by the bravery of standing strong in the face of death. These martyrs were “in the zone,” like the New York Mets’ Daniel Murphy on a home run streak in the Major League Baseball’s NLCS. They were walking with the Spirit at a level that most of us have never walked.
In part, they believed they had been chosen to teach others that this life isn’t all there is. Because of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead, there is so much more that the desires of this world can fade away in comparison.
John wrote, “And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever (1 John 2:17, NLT).
Many find this difficult to believe because we are taught to hold on to this world with all that we have for as long as we can. Then along come the martyrs and rare individuals like Becky Stowe who dare teach us something different.
All Saints Day offers congregations a wonderful opportunity to learn from the legacy of these and others who have gone before us in the faith. Through remembering their lives, we find a model for faithful discipleship and a hope that transcends our present circumstances.