This week’s readings represent the age-old struggle to make meaning and hope after loved ones have died. This is a time of year when I naturally remember my mother and my brother anyway as well as other loved ones that were not as close to me but whose deaths impacted me or those I loved. If we follow the lead of the readings in how to interpret the concept of “All saints”, for me that is more helpful than trying to draw some line between “all saints” and “all souls” (but I will try to unpack that a little…
In the Wisdom reading, we are talking about the “souls of the righteous” whereas Isaiah has an even more inclusive “all peoples”. I want to reflect on both readings in tandem as a kind of “All saints” reading and an “All souls” reading together (I haven’t actually looked to see what the lectionary says for all souls. So if we consider our beloved who have died as “righteous” in any way, as in some way subscribed to the radical justice and utopian vision of the reign of God then we label them “Saints” and that is all that it takes. So really everyone is covered under the idea of “All saints” because there is some good in everyone and God can work with that and call more out of them (this is assuming anything happens after death, although I generally prefer to hedge my bets and try to turn to justice in this life in case it is all my individual soul gets).
“All souls” is not an implication that some people don’t qualify for some sort of entrance exam to be “saints”. Instead it is a move from talking about the “righteous” to talking about “all peoples”. In the end God’s radical inclusivity and hope will challenge all our notions of justice and deserving. Justice is a starting point for aligning ourselves with God but God is everything and can afford to be reckless. God even loves and saves and gives bountifully to those who don’t deserve it. I used to see this as good news when I was young and naïve, but the more I have read about politics and economics in the world the more I wish God would call all the oppressors to account more than she does.
“Even you?” asks God, “will you still like me calling them to account when I show how you are implicated?” We who participate in society, especially we who benefit from inequality must work for the justice we thirst for. The dead are the “righteous” in so far as they worked for justice and kindness with God; but God isn’t ultimately interested in whether we judge them as worthy, before we begin the pious tradition of “praying for their souls” god has already swept them up in whatever hospitality is possible in whatever reality looks like after death.
So then having anxiety about whether God would accept as “saints” my brother, my mother, my good friend who suicided or anyone else is also beside the point. If I can feel this love and feel this loss then that soul that is lost from my presence had value and God sees that value more clearly than I do and welcomed them into Godself with more love and passionate longing than I could ever begin to ask for.
This is not to say that their deaths are God’s will or something that I should celebrate. God consistently has that longing to be one with us, but gives us many opportunities in this life to begin to move into that union. Life is a great blessing, it is not cheap or trivial and even when we think about the meaning of eternity and the “what comes after” we do it within a framework of our bodily and conscious experiences of this life. We simply can’t imagine any way of being apart from alive. We tend to cling to childish hopes of “Another world” or a perfect place called “heaven”. I don’t know what “happens” really, I just hope that God’s love means something and I try to trust that.
The psalm seems at first glance less inclusive than the picture I have just painted. In the psalm it is those with clean hands and pure hearts who haven’t soiled themselves with lies and falseness. This seems to speak into my fear that evil is allowed to simply thrive no matter its effect on others. In this psalm God in some way honours the efforts of those who do make the effort to be sincere and honest. This psalm is less reassuring because in a word of capitalism, commodification, performativity can any of us really claim not to have lied and cheated out way into things? Do any of us have hands unsoiled by market goods that are made by exploited labour in sweatshops and are part of the denuding of the earth for trivial reasons such as to match decorations.
The King imagery at the end puts me off somewhat and I was going to steer clear of it, but what if the “ancient doors” and gates need to brow higher and bigger to let in this “king of glory” because of the radical inclusivity, the infinity of his entourage. Just as recently we had the reading about the eye of the needle, those of us who cannot under our own merit “climb the mountain of the Lord” need to rely on the endless possibilities of the infinite love of God. We seek to be what God wants us to be, but the movement is not one person, it is all of us with God- with the King of glory. To become the radical justice we dream of we must connect with others. Our love keeps those who have died within the reign of God and our love can also reach out to take more of the earth with us into God.
There is more idealistic imagery in the second reading, about a future time of consolation. The caution here is not to use it as an escapism from the immediacy of all that is wrong with this world. It is wrong to read an implication here (as some do) that this life and this earth are disposable commodities and that God will give us a new one just like that. There is something unique and precious about this life on this earth and we need to be better stewards of what we have been given.
Instead this reading is a call to hope that somehow God’s presence will be “among mortals” that the grace and possibility of the reign of God will be made somehow accessible to us. It doesn’t say how and it doesn’t tell us to passively wait for it, but God is the beginning and end of all that we are and strive for and become and love. Whatever happens in this world and in this life God will be with us, reaching out to give us possibilities and solace. I refuse to be a Pollyanna about it, the things that are happening to some of God’s beloved (eg entire families of refugees) are painful and real and hard to find hope in (likely even harder for them than for me). Grief and loss are real. Human sins such as exploitation, envy, bullying, unkindness, greed are also real. We can’t erase that. What we are called to do is stubbornly cling to a radical hope (in the context of Jesus having had to carry and die on a cross…and the real crosses we see and build and suffer on around us).
I am going to consider the gospel separately, because to me it speaks of a completely unrelated issue. But as we remember and mourn and celebrate our beloved family and friends around all saints/souls days let us cling to radical hope. Let us use this life to orient ourselves ever more firmly toward God’s justice, kindness and faithful presence. Let us never let go of our loves (though our mission is still to live fully and with joy).