These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,.
-Hebrews 11:39-12:1 (NIV)
I’m writing this on November 1, which for most people I suppose is just the day after Halloween. But if you’re a Christian who follows a calendar of the church year, there’s another name for the first day of the eleventh month of the year: All Saints’ Day. It’s also known sometimes as the Feast of All Saints, and an alternate name for the day, All Hallows’ Day, actually gave Halloween its name. (“Halloween,” or “Hallowe’en,” is a contraction of “All Hallows Evening,” which is the vigil that precedes the Feast of All Saints.)
All Saints’ Day is generally what it sounds like; it’s a celebration of “all the saints.” While it’s sometimes associated particularly with those canonized as Saints in the Catholic Church, it actually has a wider significance than that. Since at least the 4th century, the church saw the importance of commemorating martyrs for Christ, both known and unknown. Feast days were held at different times of the year, often around Easter or Pentecost. By the 6th century, these feasts expanded in meaning to include all the dead in Christ, not just canonized saints and martyrs. By the 8th century, Halloween and All Saints’ Day were being celebrated on November 1.
Growing up in, and still being a part of, a non-church calendar church, I didn’t really know all that. Whenever I finally did hear about the Feast of All Saints — I’m almost sure I was a teenager before I knew anything about it — it was one of those “Catholic” things that preachers and teachers warned me against. Halloween, for me, was just about wearing costumes and trick-or-treating. Sometimes we had a Halloween party at church, with bobbing for apples and a costume contest, stuff like that. But I would have thought it strange if anyone tried to tell me that there was some religious significance to Halloween, or the day after.
That was, I suspect, exactly what my Protestant forebears wanted to happen. During the Reformation, much of Catholic doctrine and practice was suppressed, discontinued, and slandered as superstition. It was at this time that Halloween and All Saints’ Day began to be associated with paganism. Reformers taught that Halloween, in particular, was a lightly Christianized observance of the ancient pagan festival of Samhain and associated it with demons and witchcraft. During the “Satanic panic” of the 1980s and 90s, many American churches taught that Halloween could be a dangerous gateway to the occult.
The trouble with all of that is that there’s just no evidence for it.
There was an impulse in the church to remember and celebrate the sacrifices of martyrs long before it was associated with November 1st. While it’s possible that the commemoration eventually landed on November 1st to Christianize Samhain, there’s no evidence for that, either. In fact, it can also be argued that Halloween and All Saints’ Day influenced the modern understanding of Samhain.
So if you’re like me, maybe you think of All Saints’ Day as a “Catholic thing,” or a light Christianizing of pagan superstition. Maybe you’re uncomfortable about Halloween, or don’t think Christians should participate in even its secular traditions. I’m not trying to get you to observe All Saint’s Day or go trick-or-treating next year, but I want you to understand a little about the meaning of it — and maybe help us to recapture something that I think we may be in danger of losing in the church.
Jesus reminded his hearers that God “is not the God of the dead, but the living, for to him all are alive.” His point is that death doesn’t put us out of God’s reach, and that the promise of resurrection gathers both the living and the dead together into God’s embrace. God is still “the God of Abraham…Isaac, and…Jacob,” and so even those ancient patriarchs are part of our community of faith. Their memory lives on, of course, but so in some way do they.
In the book of Revelation, John sees “under the altar (in heaven) the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.” They’re appealing to God for justice, and he tells them to wait “until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been.” For John’s original audience, that “full number” might eventually include some of them, and John wants them to know that God won’t forget the faithful dead. While I think most everything in Revelation is symbol and not to be read literally, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Those martyrs are present, and God hasn’t forgotten them and they can expect vindication through resurrection.
The best-known text about a community of faith that also includes those who have gone on before us is probably found in Hebrews 11 and 12. Hebrews 11 is what some people like to call the “Hall of Fame of Faith” chapter. It describes how a long litany of our ancestors in the faith lived their lives “by faith.” The chapter ends with a reminder that our predecessors are united with us in receiving the fulfillment of God’s promises in Jesus, and then (after an unfortunate chapter division), we are reminded that they serve as a “great cloud of witnesses” that exhort and encourage us to run our own races with the same faith that they had. “The world was not worth of them,” the author says. We need to remember their faith and follow their best examples.
See, all my life I’ve heard that I need to follow Jesus — and of course I do. The writer of Hebrews, in fact, includes him in our “cloud of witnesses” when he tells us to “fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” In some ways, though not chronologically, Jesus is the example that we all follow, our spiritual ancestors and us.
So of course I need to follow Jesus. But I also need the example of people I’ve known to see just how that looks in real life, up close. Oh, they won’t be perfect examples, any more than we are to the people who will include us in their cloud of witnesses. But to see people who do their best to walk and talk like Jesus in front of us, who live “by faith” in visible, tangible ways in our sight, is to be blessed beyond measure. And it’s fitting that we remember those people when they’re gone; to thank God for their example and to recall that we share a common hope, that we’ll see each other again around God’s throne.
The people who taught you about Jesus. The ones who loved you with his love when you most needed it. The ones who prayed for you daily. The ones who encouraged you, and the ones who challenged you and sometimes infuriated you. The ones whose service shamed you and whose grace overwhelmed you. All these are your cloud of witnesses. When they are with the Lord, they are still a part of our community of faith.
I’m thinking of many now who I’ve had the privilege over 55 years of life to know and to be known by. While I won’t see their faces or hear their voices again this side of heaven, they “still speak” to me.
Who are the saints you include in your cloud of witnesses?
And who will include you?
May we remember with gratitude all the saints who taught us to follow Jesus.