he first week in November is the time when we
remember the faithful departed and celebrate our fellowship with them in
the "communion of saints". But the division of the commemoration into two
days - All Saints on the 1st and All Souls on the 2nd - serves to remind
us that the status within the Christian scheme of things of those who have
died is not straightforward. Indeed, it has been the source of some of the
bitterest arguments among Christians.
In the first place, what does it mean for us to be "in fellowship" with
those who have died? Direct encounters through spiritualist mediums are
one possibility. But they have been openly condemned in the Old Testament
and are never mentioned, let alone approved, in the New Testament.
Jesus himself never discussed the possibility of communication between
the living and the dead, except obliquely and negatively in the parable
usually called "Dives and Lazarus" (Luke 16.20). There the rich man was
denied his request that Lazarus might be sent to warn his brothers of the
fate awaiting them.
Second, there are problems raised by the implied distinction between
those who are remembered on All Saints and those who are remembered on All
Souls. Who are we to make such judgments? And what does such a distinction
mean? Some Christians will pray to those who are designated saints,
and pray for other departed souls.
This is not the place for detailed theological discussion of these
matters, but here are some pointers to the way I think we should approach
The fundamental clue is in the New Testament teaching that our baptism
is the point at which our new life as Christians begins.
"Now is eternal life, if risen with Christ we stand", as the hymn puts
it, referring to Saint Paul�s assertion that in baptism we die to sin and
rise to new life in Christ. In this perspective, physical death is a
comparatively minor incident, which certainly cannot break the communion
and fellowship that baptized Christians already enjoy as members of the
Church as the "Body of Christ".
The place where that fellowship is renewed and strengthened is in the
Eucharist. Not for nothing is it called a service of Holy Communion, in
which we are bound into closer fellowship with Christ, and so also with
each other. As we pray in another hymn: "Draw us the nearer each to each,
we plead, by drawing all to thee, O Prince of Peace."
Even in human terms, I cannot take two of you into my arms and hold you
close to me without also bringing your closer to each other. How much more
shall we be drawn together by our closeness to Jesus. And where are we
closer to him than in the act of receiving him in this sacrament? That is
why the Communion hymn I have just quoted immediately continues: "Thus may
we all one Bread, one Body be, through this blest sacrament of unity."
In purely human terms we are bound to feel separated by death from
those "whom we love but see no longer". We all have our own particular
ways of feeling close to them. We visit a certain place, perhaps, where we
enjoyed each other�s company; or listen to a piece of music with special
associations; or just sit quietly and recalling times when we were happy
But in Christian terms the picture has an extra dimension. It is our
hope and trust that our loved ones who have died are in some way - though
it is beyond our understanding - closer to God than during their earthly
lives. And we are therefore closest to them when we are close to God in
And what is true of our fellowship with each other within this
congregation, and of our fellowship with our departed family and friends,
is true also of our fellowship with those whom the Church has seen fit to
designate saints, or "lights of the world in their several generations",
as one Anglican prayer book calls them.
We may be inspired by reading of their deeds and their faith, in some
cases by reading their own words. We may pray for strength to follow in
their footsteps. But nowhere are we closer to them, "knit together in one
communion and fellowship", than gathered around the altar or holy table.
So it seems to me that, rather than try to distinguish between saints
and other departed souls - praying to some and for others -
we should simply pray with them all, as we do with each
other, "rejoicing in their fellowship and following their good examples".
All Christians, according to the New Testament authors, are "called to
be saints". That is to say, all of us are called to live holy lives, lives
characterized by faith and hope and love. And the place we come to draw
strength for that daily task is the Eucharist.
That it also turns out to be the place where we come closest to those
who have "run the race before us" is a bonus. But with our knowledge of
God�s love and care for us, it should not be a surprise