All Saints’ Day, Year B
The Rev’d N.J.A. Humphrey
John 11:32-44; Revelation 21:1-6a
1 November 2015
The first thing that stood out when I first looked at the lessons appointed for All Saints’ Day in Year B of our three-year lectionary cycle is how doleful they are compared to the other two, traditional, sets of readings. “These are better-suited to All Souls than All Saints,” I thought. They struck me at first as altogether too funereal for the festive joy that I have come to associate with All Saints. So I’ll admit to being a bit disappointed that on this, the fourteenth anniversary of my ordination to the diaconate and the seventh anniversary of my son’s baptism, we should hear such readings that, to me, are such downers—at least compared with what I’m used to in the other two years. But that’s so often the nature of change. I found myself mourning over these mournful readings.
Upon reflection, however, I had to admit that these lections were, in fact, germane to All Saints, because you can’t talk about the saints without talking about death. And since All Saints is a traditional date on which baptisms are particularly appropriate, and we will be renewing our own Baptismal Covenant in just a few minutes, the linkage between death and the saints can be seen by reflecting on the meaning of baptism. Baptism is a dying and rising with Christ, a prefiguring of the journey that we proclaim has already been made by the saints who have gone before us and whose memory we celebrate today.
In the saints, as in the raising of Lazarus, we see the glory of God at work. Before we get to the glory, however, we have to go with Jesus to stand before the grave. Before he raises Lazarus, we are told, as the King James Version so succinctly puts it, “Jesus wept.” (Those two words, by the way, comprise the shortest verse in the Bible. More than being a nifty bit of trivia, though, I think the fact that they were set apart as a verse on their own invites us to pause there and contemplate Jesus’ humanity in the face of the death of his friend.)
The mourners, however, were divided in their reaction to Jesus’ tears. The first reaction came from the romantics in the crowd: “See how he loved him!” The second came from the cynics, who sneered, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” The answer, John implies and then demonstrates, is yes. Jesus could have. But he didn’t.
Why? Was it simply to demonstrate his power in a more impressive fashion? And if this was all for show, why cry? Why not just get on with it? Spare us the waterworks and get to the fireworks!
Nowadays, we tend to have the same cynical reaction and ask the same bitter question about God whenever someone we love dies or something horrific happens. We ask, “Could not he who raised Lazarus from the dead have kept my mother from dying?” In other words, why does God permit evil and suffering? Why doesn’t he just fix everything right now? These are ultimately unanswerable questions, though I have my theories, of course. A lot of it has, I think, to do with God’s redemptive M.O.—that God is not a control freak, but works rather to redeem evil and suffering in order to bring new life—that is, if we allow God to do so.
But rather than get into a fascinating and subtle disquisition on theodicy, the problem of evil, I’d like to focus instead on the first reaction that some had when Jesus wept: “See how he loved him!” I am afraid I would not have been one of the people with this reaction. I would have been one of the cynics, not one of the romantics, partly because I am suspicious of, and thus sometimes cynical about, people whom I perceive as sentimental or over-emotional.
But wait. In one sense, “See how he loved him!” isn’t just an expression of sentimental piety; it is a recognition of true love. The mourners who were moved when Jesus wept were honoring the depth of Jesus’ friendship with Lazarus. They were connecting with Jesus in a way that cynics (such as I) so often fail to do, by entering into sympathy, even empathy, with Jesus. This response is thus not so much “romantic,” as I somewhat condescendingly labeled it earlier, as it is empathic. These people who exclaim, “See how he loved him!” got it. They got who Jesus was and is for us. Jesus is the One who weeps for us, and more than that, the One who raises us from the dead and gives us new life, both in this life and in the life of the world to come. The weeping is just as significant as the raising.
So where does this leave us? I am brought from contemplating Jesus’ tears in the Gospel to what John writes in the Book of Revelation about the tears of the saints: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”
All Saints’ Day celebrates our hope that we will someday join the saints who surround God’s heavenly throne. We are encouraged thereby to join with the saints in praying for each other as we bear each other’s sorrows. All Saints’ Day reminds us that we are not alone in our prayers—that the whole communion of saints is rooting for us, as it were, always reminding us that there is more to life than meets the eye, and that we are to live in hope as we pattern our lives after the saints, and to rely on the saints to help us pattern our lives after Christ Jesus our Lord.
“And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful. And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.”
Look at our altar frontal and Bible markers, with their Alpha and Omega monograms. They aren’t just pretty symbols, but reminders that Jesus does indeed make all things new and is indeed trustworthy and true. Jesus is the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega, and All Saints’ Day gives us the opportunity to rejoice with those who have already been drawn into the nearer presence of God, as we await in hope our own resurrection.