Today we are celebrating All Saints Day. The tradition of celebrating the saints and martyrs has been marked by Christians ever since the 4th century the Feast of All Holy Martyrs.
In 837AD Pope Gregory IV extended the festival to include saints, renaming the festival the Feast of All Saints, all who were martyred or who lived an exemplary life.
In recent times this has been widened to include everyone who is a Christian. We are all saints, in a biblical sense.
All Saints Day is a time to be thankful for all those Christians who have lived before us, whether they are officially saints or not. Some are the great teachers and prophets from history. Some are those who’ve taught and inspired us personally.
Some are our friends and family. We can thank God for their witness, and for the way they have transmitted the faith down the generations. We can learn from their lives. We can take time to be grateful for what we’ve received, and to recommit ourselves to follow in their footsteps.*
Interestingly, the reading from Luke’s Gospel takes us into a radical new place and challenges the narrow understanding of this day. In this passage Jesus moves from the narrow understanding of who was included in God’s economy and how that was to be defined. He continues, as he has done repeatedly in Luke, to prefer the poor and to diminish those who would have seen themselves as belonging to the inner circle, the blessed, the rich, those with names and with power.
He instructs his followers to be inclusive even at the risk of personal recrimination and harm. He tells people to defy the accepted rules of engagement with others and to take it to and beyond the limits in place to make the intolerable tolerable. Soldiers, legally, could only make you carry their bags a certain distance so defy them and carry it twice as far and see what happens. Force the person to hit you with the back of the hand which was against law and practice. This is not about doing good, but about challenging the injustice inherent in the system.
Jesus takes it further and says we are to do unto others what we would want them to do unto us. This is an incredibly challenging statement. It is not a golden rule, it is a deep dark gold mine we are challenged to explore and to live. It is not about our relationships with those like us. It doesn’t even stop at simply celebrating saints who fit into our perception of life, faith and religion. It is not about our closed and isolated community but about the ever-expanding community of life on and beyond this planet.
Saints are not just humans, and especially not just humans who share our ethnicity, our values or our lifestyle. Saints are present in communities unlike ours, in peoples we fear and in the created world we continue to exploit.
Throughout history peoples of all backgrounds have sought to recognise God at work in their world. These cultures have discerned wisdom and insights both individual and universal, providing us with a web of spiritual and religious wisdom informing and expanding our own. To ignore such for an exclusive us only variety diminishes all of us. Thomas Merton, Henry Nouwen, Rowan Williams, Elizabeth Johnson, Sallie McFague, Pope Francis and many many others have initiated and maintained communion with the saints of other faiths and practices in order to add to and affirm what they already know or suspect. So should we.
In the book of Job we read, “But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you;” Other versions use the word beasts, a deeply primal and free expression of God’s creativity, full of the capacity to teach, mentor and lead us. They too fit the definition of saints and deserve to be treated in the way we wish to be treated.
Wendell Berry speaks eloquently of this communion of saints when reflecting on the cycle of life in forests and plains, swamps and deserts, and everywhere in the natural world we inhabit; “They die into each other’s life, and live into each other’s death…and this exchange goes on and on, round and round, the Wheel of Life rising out of the soil, descending into it, through the bodies of creatures”.
In this century science and our expanding universe asks us to let go of the simple anthropomorphic (human centred) understanding of creation and Gods economy (kingdom) and to come into a relationship of respect, compassion and justice – the way of kindness – with all whom we share this world with. We are to recognise the wisdom inherent in others of all ethnicities, faiths and backgrounds and to sit in the desert and hear the wisdom of the beasts and all that maintains our planet and our lifestyle.
Failing to do so will continue the process of destruction of peoples through senseless wars, embargoes, bans and bombs. Saints are dying in places like Yemen, West Papua, Aleppo, Philippines, the Sudan, Burma, remote communities of Australia and Manus Island. Saints are being banned from bringing their wisdom here for the crime of wanting a better life. Saints, such as these, must be welcomed in our country or we fail the test of doing unto others.
Failure will diminish the incredible success of the theory of evolution by natural selection in giving us the immense diversity of thousands of years of refining creation. Within that process there are many saints, past and present, responsible for giving us sustenance, oxygen, and sustainability – trees, birds, fish, oceans, mountains and rivers not to mention bugs, mosquitos, flies, microbes and more. We rarely include them in our list of saints or in our prayers on all saints day, but they are there by default, central to the on going creation of our world.
On this all Saints Day we are asked to expand our worldview to include difference and diversity, to find a place in our religion for all who have been created in the image of God; meaning those with the capacity to create and continue to create the unbelievable, and for many of us, the unfathomable complexity of our habitat.
By doing so we will be challenged about our relationships with others including the creatures we share this world with. We will begin to see such as deserving to be treated, in the words of Jesus, as we wish to be treated. “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” We are to write this across all our transactions, relationships and interactions with those we share this world with, and this world itself.
It is recognising the sainthood of all things, not just selected humans of specific gifts and talents. It is recognising that we entertain angels, saints, in each and every transaction we participate in. Detainees, victims of war, dislocated refugees and first nations peoples around the world, practitioners of other faiths, old growth forests, witchetty grubs and more carry the wisdom we need to maintain and care for ourselves, others and this world.
On this All Saints Day let us take just a few moments to quietly remember all saints of all kinds now.