I have to admit that I could take or leave Halloween. It’s not really a holiday that I have a strong connection with any more, since I lost the ability to eat large amounts of candy without suffering not so good consequences. It’s fun seeing the kids enjoy it, but really, it would not make my list of favorite holidays. What I really enjoy is what comes right after Halloween: All Saints and All Souls Days.
Unfortunately, for most people, Halloween has lost its connection with All Saints Day, which always comes on November 1 and is observed in many churches on the first Sunday thereafter. Halloween, in fact, is technically called All Hallows Eve — “hallow” being an Old English world with a connection to the word “holy” (as in the Lord’s Prayer, which traditionally includes the line “hallowed be thy name”). All Saints are hallowed — that is, holy. So without an All Saints Day, there never would have been a Halloween. All Souls Day, on November 2, is a day that traditionally is set aside to remember all who have died — whether we attach the thought of “saint” to them or not.
While we generally reserve the word “saint” for a spiritual superhero, the word is used in the New Testament to refer to anyone who is a follower of Jesus. I would expand that even further, to say that a saint is someone who has occupied a sacred space in our lives. And most of us could probably come up with a list of such people who have touched our lives over the years.
One of the privileges of being a priest is that one gets to know a number of people, and often in surprisingly intimate ways. Part of that intimacy is that I am often privileged to be present at the time someone dies or very shortly thereafter. On the one hand, it’s not a part of the role I look forward to. I have attended the dying and deaths of more people I came to know and love than I would care to count, and some of them left this life far too soon. At the same time, to be present at such moments in people’s lives is indescribably sacred. And I mean that — I can’t really describe what it is like. There is an almost palpable sense of sacred presence as a loved one becomes absent. I don’t know that family or friends necessarily experience it in this way, but as a priest one is sort of present as a kind of witness to the sacred, and I feel it powerfully in such times.
Having experienced such moments many times, I must admit that I really have no use for the distinction between All Saints and All Souls Days. For it is abundantly clear to me that everyone is a saint in some sense, because everyone has been important in somebody’s life along the way (perhaps there are people who have not, but that seems to me exceedingly rare if ever). Everyone has occupied a sacred space in somebody’s life, and thus deserves to be remembered on All Saints.
Which brings me back to the declaration with which I began, that I really enjoy All Saints/All Souls. Perhaps enjoy is not quite the word. I’m not really sure what the right word is, I guess. But every year at All Saints, I find myself remembering the faces of all those saints who have crossed my life’s path, and particularly those who have gone on to the next life. They have all left their fingerprints on my life in some way, shape or form. Some of them knew that they did, others did not. It is a bittersweet occasion, in some respects, but also an opportunity for profound thanksgiving. Because when all is said and done, we are really here for each other, to shape each other, to show God to one another, to occupy sacred spaces in each others’ lives. And that is a profound gift, privilege and responsibility.
So, thank you, all you saints past, present and yet to come. You have made all the difference.