Psalm 24:1-6, Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9, Revelation 21:14-4:5, John 11:32-44
The celebration of All Saints, also known as All Hallows (Hallowmas), in Christian churches commemorates the holy ones who have died and gone before us, the great cloud of witnesses who call us to righteous life, who are united with us even when we cannot see them. The saints show us how to live, to endure, and to hold fast through loss, sorrow, and pain, as well as through honours, joys and triumphs of life. They lead us to communion with God, with one another, and with all the holy ones who have gone before us.
In parts of the world at All Saints, family members and friends visit grave sites to pray and remember the dead while others celebrate by sharing meals and singing at those graves. Some even take flowers and candles. In the evening, all those lit candles create an illuminating display of light and hope – to signify the presence of God and of each beloved soul. For us it is a day to remember not only the saints but those who we love who have died and are with us no more.
Our reading from the wisdom of Solomon and our Gospel from John deal with important questions around death, what it is to lose someone we love, and the Christian hope of an eternal future in God. They offer a helpful message for All Saints about love, hope and how the glory of God is revealed and realised in the present, even in the bleakest of moments.
The reading from the Wisdom of Solomon in the Old Testament in many ways anticipates Christian doctrines of the communion of Saints and life after death that develop through the story of Christ in the New Testament. These are some of the earliest suggestions in the Bible that life is not the end. The passage celebrates human connection with the deceased and insists that human perceptions regarding the dead are not as they seem. For the anonymous author of the book, death is not the end; death is not a tragedy, but a change of being, an entry into full life with God.
The author offers a rather beautiful and poetic glimpse of the fate that awaits them, when they “will shine forth” and “run like sparks through the stubble.” These dead are fragments of light, blazing into eternity with God..., echoed at All Saints when thousands of candles burn in the darkness at gravesides. For the writer of the Wisdom of Solomon, the living and the dead are still connected and related to one another.
But that connection, between the living and the dead is not some way off in the future, but is here in the present, revealed in the Glory of God. And it is that same theme of finding that connection in the present which is developed further in our Gospel from John.
It is Mary’s grief, expressed to Jesus in the present in that moment of loss, which begins the response from Jesus which results in the raising of Lazarus. In that moment Jesus weeps with her – a response deeper than words, revealing a God who weeps with us. In his weeping at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, and in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus reveals a God who exists in the moment of our pain and anguish and suffers with us. This is not a future promise, but a present reality, and something that brings us comfort in the present during our own pain and loss.
The others, Mary, Martha, and the crowd of mourners must also respond in that moment to bring about the raising of Lazarus - a sign that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus offers them an invitation to believe as he says the words to Martha ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed...?” That invitation worked in and through Jesus and presented to all in that moment brings about the final act of the scene and the dead man’s response to the words of Jesus “Lazarus, come out!” Those words of invitation to believe echo down the centuries to us today to remind us of the faith of Mary and Martha, who experienced first-hand the glory of God in that moment when their brother stepped from the tomb.
It reminds us not only of the present-centredness of faith but also of love. Love conquers death in this story in that very moment, and it is a comfort to us all that live in the belief that love is stronger than death. The story begins with assurances and remembrances of love. Martha, Mary, and Lazarus are members of a family whom Jesus loves. Lazarus is described as the one whom Jesus loves, and Mary is recalled as the one who anointed Jesus with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair. Toward the end of the story, love is publicly displayed as Mary kneels at the feet of Jesus and weeps. Those who have come from Jerusalem to console the family are weeping with Mary. Jesus joins in the weeping, so that the observing Jews remark on his love: “See how he loved him!’
Jesus participates in the moment and takes within himself the experience of loss. In taking upon himself the sorrow and pain of those whom he loves, Jesus reveals the promise available to all. In the death of Lazarus, the one whom Jesus loved, we see a precursor to Jesus’ own death for those whom he loves. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” Ultimately, his act of love will reveal the glory of the one who sent him.
As the miracle of life unfolds, the glory of God is revealed for those who desire to see. What is revealed here is the life-giving activity of God in the person of Jesus. It is not about Jesus’s actions alone however, the participation of those present is crucial to the miracle that takes place. Those present are invited to believe but also to act, in the power of love. Lazarus is still referred to as ‘the dead man’ as he steps out of the grave bandaged in cloth, until Jesus says to them ‘unbind him and let him go’ – their actions provide the final part of the miracle. The raising of Lazarus is incomplete without it, reminding us of the importance of our own participation in God’s work in our world.
On a Sunday when the witness of those Saints who have died in faith is remembered, the substance of our own faith if the face of death is literally on the table. The final act of our gospel passage, in which the dead man responds to the words of Jesus, reflects a very significant moment of revelation of the glory of God. The story of Lazarus is no longer about sickness or death, but about resurrection and life and the power of love in the glory of God.
Today, those words invite us to believe, to have faith and trust in God, and also to participate in God’s work in the present. All Saints cannot just be a day to think back in gratitude for the saints who have gone before us, or to look forward to a distant eternal future with God, but to know that God’s glory is revealed in the present, to those who choose to believe and participate. In the present is a God who weeps alongside us in our pain and anguish. This is a story of the miracle of how love is stronger than death, and that death is never the end. We find miracles in the present moment, like the candles of All Saints Day, burning in the darkness, a display of light and hope – to signify the presence of God and of each beloved soul.
Rev Melanie Harrington