I have told you before about the first time I attended a Palm Sunday service at an Episcopal Church. In all my previous experience Palm Sunday was just, well, Palm Sunday – Jesus riding a donkey, people waving branches, lots and lots of hosannas. It was a celebration of sorts – minor compared to Easter of course, sort of like a warm-up. The Episcopal Church’s observance of Palm Sunday begins like this, but then it throws in the Passion, complete with us shouting out “Crucify him!” It is a service of wild emotional swings and by the time Jesus has breathed his last and his lifeless body has been laid in the grave we in the congregation have been through almost every human emotion possible.
Our service today produces similar swings, but unlike Palm Sunday, which is focused on Jesus, All Saints’ Day is much more personal. It is about all those we love but see no longer. As the blessing I will use at the end of the service says, today we reflect on those who have “baked the bread of faith and allured [us] with the aroma.” From the Jazz music to the balloons at the Peace to the delicious desserts that wait in the Parish Hall, we are surrounded by the sights and sounds of celebration. Also present on the streamers and in our Eucharistic prayer are the names of bread bakers who were dear to us. It is possible and very human to revel in their memories while at the same time to grieve their absence from our life. It is not at all uncommon on an anniversary of a death or on Mother’s or Father’s Day to see a friend post something like, “Even though you have been gone for 25 years, I still think about you every day. Mommy (or Daddy), I miss you.”
Yes, this day elicits in us a whole host of emotions and not a single one of them is inappropriate. Each is to be embraced and understood for what it is.
Today’s Gospel reading focuses our attention on the heart of story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Even in this condensed version we see a wide swath of human emotion on display. I am particularly drawn to group labeled “the Jews”. In an earlier portion of the narrative not included in today’s reading we are told these people are, for lack of a better word, “professional” mourners. They show up when a person dies and join family members in grieving.
Jesus wants to go to the gravesite to visit the place where his friend has been entombed. The text tells us that Jesus weeps. The grievers who have been watching this, say two things:
“Look how much Jesus loved him.”
“If he was able to open the eyes of a blind man why did he not save his friend from dying?”
These are two very powerful statements, aren’t they! One is a confession that God cares deeply about us. The other is the universal question of the faithful: why did God allow this terrible thing to happen.
Whenever I gather with a family at the passing of a loved one, in some form or another, this statement of faith and this question of faith are present: God loves the person I lost. Why did this happen? We hold these two opposites deep inside where, over time, they learn how to sit side by side with arms around each other. It is an embrace which is at the heart of what we call “faith.”
Today’s Gospel reading concludes with Jesus calling out to Lazarus and when he comes out of the tomb instructing others to unbind him, and let him go. This moment stands for us as a symbol of the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. It is what lies ahead. What lies behind is the initial shock of “God loved the person I lost” and “Why did this have to happen?” On All Saints’ Day we realize we are somewhere in between. We are somewhere on the journey from our loss to a joy-filled reunion. The reason this day is filled with so many different emotions – emotions given a place and a space in today’s service – is that what is past and what is to come are very present to us in this moment.
I have told you before about how Celtic spirituality witnesses to the notion of “Thin Places”. The Celts say that heaven and earth are only a three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller. Don’t you experience this moment as a thin place? Perhaps you come to church every Sunday because it helps you feel connected with those you have lost. Today, this connection feels especially close. We feel close to the echoes of the cries of the mourners who sat with Martha and Mary. And today, it is as if Jesus is just about to call out to the tomb for our loved ones to come forth. This is a thin moment.
May you be blessed while in this space. May you leave confident you will see again all those you have lost. May you be encouraged to taste again the bread they baked and to smell the wonderful aroma of their presence in your life. May you go forth on your journey as a saint of God, touching lives as your life has been touched.