2 November 2014
All Saints Sunday
Christ Church, New Haven
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven. (Mt. 5)
Today marks the beginning of the season of nostalgia. This is not an official season, of course: you will not find it on any calendar, or in any table of liturgical observances. But it is a noticeable period that is characterized by a pervasive and unrelenting longing for things as they “used to be.”
So I warn you … this nostalgia is going to be in the air all around us for weeks to come. First today, on All Saints Sunday, there is the nostalgia for those who have died whom we either venerate this morning as saints, or later this afternoon at the Evensong for All Souls, whom we miss as deceased friends and family.
And then, just around the corner will come Thanksgiving, when we’ll hear “Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go,” a song that brings back fond back memories of experiences we never really had of quaint country cottages and warm kitchens odiferous with the smell of baking pies and steaming puddings.
And then there is the great blockbuster of them all, Christmas (a season which we Episcopalians stubbornly refuse to recognize until it is almost too late), with its evocation of family and friends gathered on snowy nights around blazing Yule logs and drinking hot steaming beverages in blissful good cheer, despite the fact that for many people it is a time of sadness and depression.
Yes, the season of nostalgia is upon us. But don’t get me wrong: I am not opposed to nostalgia. I am as nostalgic as the worst of them. Nothing quite so grand has happened since my childhood in Colorado. And for what it’s worth, I still prefer to write on a yellow legal pad rather than a glowing screen—if I have the time!
More seriously though, for all the fun we can make of nostalgia, it actually has something quite important to teach us. Nostalgia is fundamentally a longing for a home (either real or metaphorical) from which we feel exiled. And in fact there is a home far away from which we are indeed exiled, for which as St. Augustine reminds us, our hearts are restless until they once again rest there. That home is heaven, the dwelling with God from whence we came, and for which we shall (by the grace of God), spend the rest of our lives in one way or another attempting to regain. Paradise is lost, but paradise can also be regained.
But that brings me to my point, which is not really about nostalgia at all, but about its polar opposite: anticipation. If nostalgia is defined as a pain or longing for a home that is lost in the past, then I want to suggest to you today that the Feast of All Saints and its close relative, the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed, is not really about the past at all, self-evident though it may seem.
No, in their fullest meaning, these days of commemoration of the dead are all about anticipation. “But how can that be?” you may ask. “How can a day of remembrance be about anything other than the past?”
Well, let me explain. On this Day of the Dead, what is significant to us as Christian people is not that the dead are dead (and therefore gone), but rather that while they were alive, they bequeathed to us an immense gift which is the life that we are now living. Who we are both as individuals and as a people is not primarily of our own making, but of theirs. Our language, our culture, our family—even our faith—are all things that have been given to us, created in the past over countless generations. We stand, as the old proverbial saying would have it, not just on the shoulders of giants in order to see further, but really to be able to see anything at all.
Now if it is true that we have this great indebtedness to the past—to those who have gone before whom we celebrate today—then what attitude should that give us to the future? Should it not be that we owe to future generations who will come after us, the same creativity and imagination in our own day, as our forbears had in theirs, and of which we are the direct beneficiaries? Should we not, in other words, have an attitude of anticipation toward the future that is as generous to those who shall dwell in it, as our forebears were with us?
Everything that we have, was once new in its own time. Creation itself, at some point, did not yet exist, until God brought it into being. Even we human beings are ourselves, relatively speaking, a rather new thing. I heard in a TED Talk the other day that if you stretched out a 400-sheet role of toilet paper as a model of the history of the universe (not a very pretty image, I admit, but instructive nevertheless), human beings would appear only in the last millimeter of the very last sheet. That’s just how new we are. Art, culture, religion, New Haven, Christ Church—all are products of someone’s imagination and innovation in the past.
But you know what they say: nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. And neither can our regard for the past remain fixed and unchanging. All Souls Day points us toward the future, toward what is yet to come, to what we will create as our own generation’s legacy.
Think of God’s ways with humanity. Is it not true that God is always leading us toward something new, into a new way of being? Adam and Eve were not allowed to seek their redemption in Eden, but were led out of it through the east gate into the wider world. Abraham was called out of the land of Ur to a new land the Lord would show him as his true legacy. Israel was brought out of Egypt and through the Red Sea to Sinai, only there fully to become God’s people. And after his resurrection, Jesus did not allow his disciples to return to their previous lives, but commissioned them to go unto all the nations and to baptize them in his name.
We should take heart from the many places God called our own ancestors to pick up and go, because it reminds us that no status quo stays static very long. That is not the way of the world, and it is not God’s way. For all that our forbears ventured and gained, we give thanks on this day, and our gratitude to them and to God is tangible and real.
Yet to stop there would be to miss the point that on this day in particular, God is also calling us into new places (as individuals, as a parish, and as a church), just as God called those who have gone before us to venture into new territory. As we look with a justified nostalgia at what has been, we should also look with an equally justified sense of anticipation toward what is going to be—what is going to be through our own God-given imagination, our own effort, and our own creativity.
It’s no wonder then that while our culture enters into a season of nostalgia, we Christians will soon be entering instead into a very different season of anticipation. Advent, annunciation, nativity, epiphany—those words are all about something novel, something unexpected, something new that requires our participation and acceptance. For as one writer put it, “We must be forward thinkers with regard to nostalgia: we can dream of the past, but must daydream of the future.” So take time to be nostalgic, to remember and be grateful for the saints and for all those whom we have loved who have died.
But then—quickly turn your face away from the dark, and toward the east where a new day is even now, about to dawn. As a church with an east-facing altar, shall we not also be a people who look east toward Christ, who as the Easter Exsultet says, is “the Morning Star, whose brightness knows no setting, who gives light to all creation, and who lives and reigns now and forever.” Amen.
© Joseph Britton, 2014