by Karen Boyd
They lived not only in ages past;
there are hundreds of thousands still;
the world is bright with the joyous saints
who love to do Jesus’ will.
You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,
in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea;
for the saints of God are just folk like me,
and I mean to be one too.
This hymn, the lyrics penned in 1929 by Lesbia Scott, was part of a set of Christian music meant for children. Written in Britain, it never became popular there, but it has become a beloved hymn in the Episcopal Church. It is recommended on All Saints Sunday. Here at the Church of the Heavenly Rest, it is almost our Baptismal Anthem. But, who are the saints, and why do we care?
Throughout the ages man has revered ancestors and many have called upon them to influence and provide wisdom. We are still fascinated by those who came before us, where we come from. Ancestry.com is big business.
In 596 CE, a Christian missionary by the name of Augustine was sent from Rome by Pope Gregory the Great to establish Christianity in the British Isles. He was successful in kick-starting the conversion of many pagans. Today we know him as St. Augustine, first Archbishop of Canterbury. The practices Augustine and his companions found when they arrived included a fall festival, usually lasting three days, where crops were gathered and a new year was celebrated. This was the beginning of the dark half of the year. This celebration, Samhain is believed to be the origin of Halloween. The ancient Celts believed this was a liminal time, when the veil between worlds was the thinnest. This was the time when contact with ancestors was the most likely.
All Saints’ Day originated in May of 609 CE when Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome to the Blessed Virgin Mary, mother of Christ. Pope Gregory III later changed the date to November 1. And then, sometime in the 10th century, the Catholic priest St. Odilo of Cluny instituted All Souls’ Day—a day to pray for the souls of the deceased. This became the final and third day of Allhallowtide.
In the Episcopal Church, we remember Saints, not only on All Saints’ Day, but throughout the year. We celebrate Feast Days of persons who, even though they were human, with all the messiness that brings, dedicated themselves to opening their hearts and souls to God’s grace, and allowing God to work through them to accomplish great things. Saints are the superheroes of the Christian faith. We learn of their good deeds and strive to live as they did, lives walking in the ways shown to us by Christ.
Not everyone who has lived a good life is canonized and formally recognized as a Saint. But so many people we associate with every day have qualities worth emulating. We humans are fallible, we all fall short of the Glory of God but there truly are thousands of people, that if we look past the human-ness, have qualities we can admire. These are those people and qualities we celebrate on All Souls Day. And what an amazing celebration we have each year as we come together to remember those we love but we see no more.
I am grateful for not only the Saints of the church, but also for those who live life well, for those who I meet every day an I can say “I want to be like them when I grow up!”