Growing up, my favorite comic books were GI Joe. I collected the action figures and the little tanks and helicopters and every month the comic book would show up in my mailbox. GI Joe was my favorite, but my friends and I read and traded and debated the merits of all the superheroes; the X-Men, Iron Man, Spiderman, the perennial debates about who was better — Superman or Batman. [See the appointed readings for this liturgy]
We had our heroes. When I look back on it now, the debates about their virtues and vices and strengths and weaknesses were really debates about ourselves, who we were and who we were becoming, what gifts we had, how we would deal with our own personal villains. and how we would handle our own hidden weaknesses.
Heroes shaped our childhoods. The young church had her heroes, too. The church in its earliest years has women and men, girls and boys who lived lives of extraordinary and very public spiritual courage. They were heroes — ordinary people who lived extraordinary lives because they had Jesus Christ as their Lord. He was the source of their superpowers. He set the example for them, and they in turn helped the faithful who followed to see that they — that we — could achieve greatness as well.
Our church calendar honors hundreds of individual saints. Many of them are famous and notable — St Mary, St Peter, St Paul, St Francis, St Patrick. Many more are less familiar, known and sought out by those who need their example. St Cecilia, the patron of musicians. St Blaise, the patron of those with throat ailments. St. Hubert, the patron of hunters.
There are only so many days in the year, and there are many more saints than we have days to celebrate them. Just this week, we commemorate William Temple on Tuesday, Willibrord of Utrecht on Wednesday, Leo the Great on Saturday!
We set aside this feast of All Saints to remember the blessed superheroes of the kingdom, and to remember the very fact that lies at the heart of every Christian — it is possible for ordinary people to reach the brilliant glory of the heavenly vision.
Our calendar organizes holy days by rank. You can see it on page 15 of the prayer book. At the top are the seven Principal Feasts. Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, Christmas Day, and Epiphany, which all have something to do with great events in the life of Jesus, or with the central doctrine of the nature of our God as father, son, and holy spirit. Only All Saints stands as a feast celebrating, not what God is or what Jesus did, but how Christ has gone on working in the lives of his beloved people.
And so important is All Saints that it is the only feast in the whole calendar that we can celebrate twice! On November 1, whatever day of the week that happens to be, and also on the Sunday following, which allows the greatest number of the faithful to celebrate, and which joins our Sunday celebration of the Resurrection to the lives of the saints who testified and who still witness to the power of the Resurrection.
There are some parts of the Christian family where the saints are not remembered. In the turbulent days of the Protestant Reformations, the Roman Catholic church was accused of idolatry, of worshiping those hundreds of men and women when worship was due only to God alone. And in a sense, they had a point. By the late middle ages, Jesus, the only true mediator between sinful humanity and God the Father, had grown too holy, too sacred, too remote. People turned to the more familiar and accessible saints for prayer, asking his mother Mary and the other saints to carry their prayers to Christ, for they were not worthy to address the Son of Man directly.
But the more radical reformers, I believe, threw out the baby with the bathwater. They cleared the churches of the saints and disinfected the religious experience. The outcome of their cleansing was that Christianity became a smaller and more lonely place, where only the individual believer was left alone to negotiate her salvation with Jesus.
The Anglican approach was typically more balanced, more moderate.
We kept our saints because we heeded the letter to the Hebrews that tells us that we are even now surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.
We kept our saints because we have heard and have believed this word from the Revelation that the throne of God is surrounded by great multitude that no one can count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.
We kept our saints because we knew that the people of God have always honored those who have served the kingdom of God so well.
We kept our saints because we know that the veil of death only changes us and does not end us, and as we are supported by each other’s prayers in this community, so also are we supported in prayer by those who are even now closest to God.
We kept our saints because, like I did when I was 12, we need our heroes to help us learn who we are, and who we are becoming, how to use the gifts we have been given, and how to conquer our foes.
Ultimately, we kept our saints and we honor and celebrate them today. We do not worship them. We worship only God who glorified them, who gave them the superpowers of grace and courage and skill and love. We honor the saints because we worship God who take ordinary people and transforms them into extraordinary, holy, wonderful saints.
They are our brothers and sisters, and I believe that they hope we will become like they are. Study their lives. Seek inspiration from their example, for they are trailblazers on the path that we are all walking. Rejoice that we share in fellowship, in communion with our heroic brothers and sisters in Christ, a fellowship that is stronger than death, and more glorious than our imagining.