It's interesting isn't it, that often pagan festivals of ancient times are the roots of the feasts we celebrate. So briefly, here is the back story on our feast day for today.
Before the Christian era the ancient Celtic people in the land of the British Isles practiced a religion in which November 1 was an observance of summer’s end. This marked the completion of the harvests with storehouses stocked for the winter. Because the sun's light was growing shorter they also recognized a time of dying with bonfires lit to drive away evil spirits.
Remnants of those traditions from so long ago have passed down through the ages to give us reason for parties and fun. We dress in costume as protection from wandering spirits, light candles around the graves of loved ones or decorate our door steps with lighted pumpkins to illuminate the darkness of the night.
In the 800' s the Roman church decided to "Christianize" these pagan festivals of summers end and began celebrating All Saints Day on November 1, commemorating the lives of martyrs and saints with an evening vigil the night before. Thus All Hallows Eve (hallows translates saints) eventually came to be known as Halloween.
Tonight, this Halloween night or All Hallows Eve, we will greet trick or treating princes and witches, ghosts and robots, scarecrows and pirates knowing it's all in fun. This morning we observe All Saints Day, one of the seven principal feasts of the year. When you first entered you may have noticed the sanctuary, all dressed up in its fullest white garments, a significant clue to the special nature of the day. Also, you see an addition to the chancel area; a table to display pictures or mementos of our departed love ones, and a place to light a candle in honor of them.
So, just what is a saint: In the first three hundred years of church history a saint was someone who died for Christ, these were the martyrs of the church. To qualify for sainthood you had to be killed for Jesus Christ, often killed by lions or burned at the stake.
Things changed later in the years following 313 when the Roman Catholic Church canonized saints, famous people who died but not martyred for their faith. For many years people prayed to these saints, believing these heroic ones had the ear of God in heaven making their prayers even more fruitful.
Much later, Martin Luther and other reformers didn't approve of that practice of praying to and through saints, they believed you can pray directly to God. So then saints began to refer to our loved ones who had died, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and friends.
How do you define a saint? Do you immediately think of our Biblical heroes or someone you've known personally?
Some might say a saint is one who befriends a really unbearable person. Someone else might say it's a person who plays for the New Orleans football team. Or maybe a saint is one of those who never messes up, who seems to always get it right, whose lives are a perfect example of Godly living.
How does the Bible define a saint? In the second reading, Paul addresses his letter to the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus, those marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit. The Gospel according to Luke gave us the characteristics of those blessed by Jesus, the poor, the hungry, the sorrowful.
One of my favorite Christmas ornaments is oval in shape with colored glass set to resemble a miniature stained glass window. Around the perimeter are the words, "Saints are the ones the light shines through."
Finally now, here is something that might actually apply to ordinary folks like us.
The word saint means set apart for God or God's holy ones. That means we are God's holy people. We are called holy not because we ourselves are holy but because God is holy and we are associated with God. We belong to God therefore we are called holy. God's light shines through everyone of us and everyone of those who have gone before. Christians are called to high standards but we won't achieve sainthood by our own hard work and determination or by working three miracles that can be documented by the Vatican. If sainthood depended entirely on our own efforts would we ever qualify?
Following the sermon we will be renewing our promise of connection as together we recite the Baptismal Vows. The reality is that all of us who have been baptized are already saints because all it takes is to belong to God. Even though God claims us as his beloved we are also given the freedom to choose to walk in his ways or not. Use it or lose it, the saying goes and that's the way it is with our precious connection with God.
Knowing this we might hear Jesus' sermon on the beatitudes in a slightly different light. Perhaps Jesus is saying, "You are loved, act like it. You are redeemed and set free, act like it. You are a saint, act like it. Become what you already are and you will be blessed with every breath you take. Live generously, live the life you were created to live. (1)
It's a two way street between God and us, isn't it? God invites and welcomes us into his kingdom, all we have to do is say yes.
Years ago at my ordination, three new saints were added to St. Mark's community of saints. At the completion of their baptism each was handed a lighted candle with the words, "Receive the light of Christ." When I handed the candle to the oldest child he looked startled and a little perplexed then asked, "What shall I do with it?" It was a practical question. He was probably wondering how long he was supposed to tend this burning candle. It was also a theological question. Now that I have been given the light of Christ, what am I to do with it? We might ask ourselves the same question this morning. By the grace of God we have been given the gift of Christ's light, now what are we going to do with it? AMEN
(l) Barbara Brown Taylor