Since this All Saints’ Day, I’ve been mindful my friend Jeffrey Finch, who died on Thursday of MS. I think of my colleague Martha Giltinan, who died last December of leukemia. I think of my brother John, who died last November in a car accident. I think of my uncle Lyle, who died of cancer earlier this year. And as always, I think of my father Vernon, who died of cancer on All Saints’ Day in 2000. I could mention others of years recent and past.
As an evangelical Anglican, I’ve never been a proponent of the invocation of the saints. Yet I’m beginning to understand it existentially. I find myself speaking to my father and my brother, telling them that I miss them, that I love them, that I’m sorry for any way I may have failed them, and yes, asking them to pray for me.
I’m comforted by the thought of them at peace and at rest — and together. I’m comforted by the thought of Jeff finally released from those tortuous years as a prisoner of his own diseased body. I’m comforted by the thought of Lyle’s mischievous smile and twinkling eye. I’m comforted by the thought of Martha’s booming laugh and fierce faithfulness, her Wagnerian immensity of spirit.
But I don’t encounter these moments as mere remembrances. I encounter in them a cognizance of living persons, remote yet somehow also present. Jesus contended that “God is not God of the dead, but of the living.” And it’s clear (Mark 12) that in Jesus’ mind Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are living now, whatever “now” means in the time of Heaven.
So too are these beloved of mine. They are remote, yet alive and somehow present. It’s not surprising that the author of Hebrews invokes the metaphor of an arena, in which we run the race while the departed cheer us on from the stands. Last winter, shortly after John died, I dreamt of him walking down a dark corridor and opening the door at its end, to be welcomed by a flood of sunlight and the roaring of a stadium crowd — and Dad was there with others to welcome him in. “We saved you a seat!” they called.
The years pass. Our dear ones die. Our mortality draws near. The veil grows thin. Listen. Can you hear them shouting?
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
The Rev’d Joel Scandrett teaches theology at Trinity School for Ministry, where he directs the Robert E. Webber Center, sponsor of the annual Ancient Evangelical Future conference. He serves in the Anglican Church of North America. A former editor at Intervarsity Press, he helped lead its Ancient Christian Commentary series.
The illustration is by Quinn Dombrowski and used under a Creative Commons license.