Revelation 7:9-17 | Psalm 34:1-10, 2 | 1 John 3:1-3 | Matthew 5:1-12
This All Saints’ Day 2020, more than a few people are drawn to the beatitudes, especially “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Our lengthy necrology this year is a visual indication of the grief that all of us bear. Names might recall images and memories to those who loved them, and the stark reality of the fatalities by violence and injustice and the devastation caused by covid-19 bind us in our humanity, in our mortality. One day, we know not when, our names will appear on such a list, by those who love us well.
That’s why we grieve, isn’t it? If someone dies and we have no connection with them, not even an ounce of empathy in our connectedness in our common humanity or as part of creation, we don’t really mourn, do we? When we are sad that Sean Connery died, for instance, it’s not because we knew him personally (unless you’re so fortunate!), but because he meant something to us personally. We valued the presence he carried, the roles he played. When we have a physical reaction to the death of George Floyd and tremors that still erupt to this day at all that his death revealed, it’s not because we knew him personally, but that we realize our connectedness with him, his family, with our systems and institutions. Whether we identify with him as a Black man as part of a Black family or whether we realize our identity in the officers, we have reason to mourn deeply, not only for what has been lost but at what is still being killed every day.
And yet . . . our readings this day point toward a great multitude singing praise, consisting of those who have come out of the “great ordeal” and now worship before God who shelters them, provides for them, and “wipe(s) away every tear from their eyes.”
I’m still processing this, but when we mourn, it seems we’re not so much expressing sorrow for those who have died and who now presumably sing among the saints, but we lament our own loss, express regret over what we’ve done or left undone in relationship with the other, and/or question the meaning and purpose of it all. We have customs or traditions to help us deal with all of this in the moments after, and thankfully we have therapy for the lifetime of contending with the grief we carry, but once a year on this day (which delightfully falls on a Sunday this wild and turbulent year), we focus not on our own mourning but on all the Saints.
We are fortunate to carry all the Saints’ in our name, making this also our patronal feast day. I say we’re fortunate because it means we have great diversity in whom we focus on as our patronal Saint. We don’t have just one–we have them all! In a church where we focus on God’s love for all, this couldn’t be more appropriate. It’s also why our mural depicts different persons, harkening back to Saints’ of our past. But they’re depicted in contemporary forms. I’ll write this up more eloquently later so we can share it widely, but let me give you an overview of how it came to be and what it means.
When the idea of a mural was presented, the idea itself was already summoning a depiction of saints, though in the abstract. I happen to have a budding artist with a desire to do mural work, and trusting his creative process, I gave little description though showed him an abstract example. He drafted the image we voted on through our congregational poll, and we have the mural we see today, merely two years after we have moved into this space, and we have brought All Saints’ to life here.
He mentioned to me that he was pulling elements of traditional saint imagery, items associated with saints to persons in the mural. We didn’t talk about this. As he was getting started, I conversed with these images, asking them what they mean to me. I’m thankful for all the Lent Madness brackets I’ve read and all the Morning Prayers I’ve prayed through Mission St. Clare, which shares a commemoration of the saint of the day. Our Christian predecessors have amazing stories, even if sometimes they’re amazingly ordinary.
I started at the left, looking at the mural drawing. With the bishop crook, he’s named “Ed Curry.” Of course this shepherd to me recalled Bp. Edward Demby, the first Black bishop in the states (“The 1916 General Convention opened the way for African Americans to become suffragan bishops with responsibilities over African American churches in the racially segregated South.”). Bp. Demby was suffragan bishop here in Arkansas and among Province VII, given charge over the Black congregations in the state. He served from 1918-1939, and you can read a detail of his life in Black Bishop, a book our current Bishop Benfield commended to me for a project in a history class while I was in seminary. When I was showing the completed mural to family friends, one asked me if this was Jesus. I smiled and said, “It could be. We all have the presence of Christ to share,” and then I told him about Bp. Demby. I also said it speaks to our current Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. Thinking on it now, it also represents the arc of our work toward racial justice and reconciliation. From 1916 when General Convention allowed Black men to be suffragan bishops to when Michael Curry was elected Presiding Bishop in 2015 is 100 years of ongoing work, perseverance, and faith. Our Vans-wearing bishop of the mural is pointing forward, in a gesture of blessing. We still have work to do.
“Maria is next.” Whether calling to mind the Holy Mother or la Virgen de Guadalupe, she also speaks to our Hispanic culture, its prominence and importance in our community. The Virgin Mary is usually accompanied by a lily and depicted reading a book. Hopefully our Maria empowers our Latinas, inspires us all to stand tall, not neglecting wisdom of tradition and learning nor our feminine expressions of God.
We were reminded that since it is 2020, what depiction of saints would we be creating if we didn’t honor our healthcare workers? “Lucas,” in his scrubs, channels St. Luke, the physician. Maybe someone was just discharged from the hospital after weeks on the ventilator, which seems like a miracle after all the charts he’s had to close with time of death. Maybe he’s just wrapping up a three-day shift, throwing his mask to the wind in the safety of his own yard. Maybe it’s 2023, and the pandemic is behind us, but we can almost hear him sing, “Amen! Blessings and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen!”
“Hilda” plays and sings along with his praise. Hildegard of Bingen was ahead of her time in more ways than one. In the 12th century as a nun, she lived into her vocation fully, sharing her visions, her writing, music, and knowledge. Her creativity and pursuits extended into things dramatic and scientific, but she gives us an example of what it means to give glory to God for all our inspiration and direction, despite what adversities we experience. (Aside from being an intelligent, prolific woman of the time, it is also suggested that she suffered migraines.)
Kneeling as if at a prayer bench, “Pauli Harris” is praying us all up, leading the way for all. Pauli Murray was lawyer, women’s and civil rights activist, and Episcopal priest (the first Black woman in The Episcopal Church, 1977). Barbara Harris was the first woman consecrated bishop in the Anglican Communion (not just TEC) in 1989. As someone who had registered voters in Mississippi during her summer vacations and had been on Freedom Rides and to Selma with MLK, Jr., in the 60’s, the threats she received as a Black woman now bishop were likely not new to her. She was renowned for her outspokenness, a voice that we now have in memory as she died in March of this year (Murray died in 1985). Both of these women are depicted with their hair short and tinged with gray in their later years, and they radiate their love of God.
The burly saint at the end with his deer companion could be none other than “Francis.” With increasing climate turmoil, Creation needs our attention and care. While we focus on Francis at our pet blessing every year near his feast day on Oct. 4th, we don’t often emphasize his vow of extreme poverty. He turned away from a life of material comfort and turned completely toward Jesus Christ, proclaiming the gospel with his whole being.
Undoubtedly, those who knew these Saints in their lifetime mourned their loss–Bishop Harris still today. And yet, we celebrate them, commemorate them (show respect). We may not know what happens when we die or have complete faith in the accuracy or reality of John’s revelation, but we do know that this side of the kin-dom, we keep those whom we loved alive in our memories–not just our memories but in our lives.
What of grandma’s sayings do we still say or dishes do we make? What prayers do we repeat or beautiful lines do we quote? How do we stand strong in the face of oppression and persecution and still radiate the light and love of Christ? How do we inspire others to sing praise to God, delighting in the life that we know here and now, no matter how difficult and heart-wrenching it can be?
The communion of saints with whom we celebrate and feast with in every Eucharistic prayer is here and now. Stories of Saints centuries ago are not all that dissimilar from our contemporaries. We are more connected than we realize. We are not isolated or alone, not even in our grief. There is one Body and one Spirit. There is one hope in God’s call to us. One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism; One God and Father of all. May this be our comfort and our inspiration, now and forever more.