By Rosalind C. Hughes
My mother thought that we should bring the baby back to the church where we were married to be christened. I explained as gently as I could that we had moved on. I was married with my own home now, and my own church, a hundred miles away and about as different in appearance from that old stone relic as you could imagine—one where we had made ourselves at home. I know that she was disappointed.
A couple of decades later, I returned to the old stone relic to attend Communion only to find that I had mistaken the rather complicated calendar of rotating rural church services, and I had missed it. Unusually, the door was still open, and I let myself in. I read the service from the prayer book in the pew, feeling at my back the shadows of the evening sun and the shades of the holy communion of saints crowded in, as thick as at my wedding or at my mother’s funeral.
All Saints’ Day Now
We are divided in too many ways in these days: by disease and by sensible precaution to prevent further morbidity and mortality; by the anger and mistrust of political difference and ideological mismatch; by the stale and still-stinging wounds of racism and its cousins. Add all of these to the regular fissures of far-flung family and those whom we have loved but see no longer, and it all adds up to a somber All Saints’.
Yet All Saints is the Feast that reminds us that there is nothing on heaven, on earth, nor under the earth that can divide us from the love of God that has been made manifest in Christ Jesus. In other words, there is nothing that can divide us from that which first brought us together as a church or as a church family.
At the end of my book, A Family Like Mine, I tell the story of our youngest child’s baptism. We were an oddly assembled family. There were members I had never met—my birth mother’s parents and her brother. My parents had not met one another before—my birth mother and my adoptive parents. None of them knew the child’s other godmother. But we were drawn together by the currents of blood and water, birth and adoption, the faith and fear that accompany baptism. We rested within the embrace of a story older than ours, with enough branches and twigs and roots to keep us cradled in its nest.
We see familial divisions in Scripture, as well.
Naomi and Ruth were from different nations and religions, yet the bonds created by intermarriage survived bereavement, famine, and grief, and a new family came into being when Obed was born to Ruth, and the neighbors called him Naomi’s boy.
Obed’s grandson, David, and Saul’s son, Jonathan, were divided by political intrigue and the personal envy and enmity of one king toward his anointed successor (understandable); yet their love created a family whose bonds endured their separation even by death, and David took Jonathan’s son, Mephibosheth, into his own house, and protected him.
John and Jesus, cousins by their mothers but apparently knowing little of one another by sight, were united by the flow of the river that runs through the divided country of the Holy Lands, brought together by the ritual of baptism.
We are divided, this All Saints’ Day the living from the living as well as the living from the dead, and yet there is little that draws apart the curtain like a baptism, that ritual that mimics the Flood and the Ark, the drought and the rain, the waters of the womb, the tomb and the resurrection.
All water is holy. The waters over which the Spirit brooded at Creation recycle to flood the earth and evaporate to land the Ark on Ararat. The land respires and the River Jordan shrugs itself over pilgrims revisiting the site of the Savior’s baptism.
All Saints’ is celebrated as a baptismal festival because it remembers this cycle, this connection, this indivisible bond between the Creator and all who have been created; between Christ and his family; between all those who have shared in the waters of baptism as they cycle through the atmosphere and return to us as though anew. It remembers that the divisions that we recognize between us, in life and in death, are no barrier to the all-embracing love of God.
Water and Fire
In one aspect, it is a festival of grief. We light candles for those whom we have loved but see no more. By another, it is a festival of lights. We delight in the living flame, in the movement of air that it creates that once made the poets imagine angels dancing in the aura created by its heat. And it is a festival of baptism, reminding us of that current of faith, humility, and hope that continues to draw us together in the wake of all that would seek to divide us.
If a community is fortunate enough to be in a position to gather around baptism, that rite and its renewal of the baptismal covenant of every person present is sufficient to remind us that the love of God, the Incarnation of Christ, and the new life of the Holy Spirit are a match for any force that would seek to divide us.
If a community, or its individual members, find themselves unable to come together with those they love for reasons of quarantine or conflict, geographical distance or sensible precautions against the pandemic, a home ritual might help to bridge that unhappy divide, and bring some healing to the moment. (You may consider ordering inexpensive floating candles and pre-printed matchbooks to send out as “kits” to parishioners for this purpose.)
A Ritual For All Saints’ Day
Fill a bowl with water. If possible, find a heat-proof glass bowl.
Pray using the Prayer of Thanksgiving over the Water from the Book of Common Prayer:
“We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.
We thank you, Father [or, O God], for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.” (BCP 1979, 306)
Read from Revelation 7:9-17 (the multitude from the nations are reunited before the throne of God, having come out of the great ordeal, “and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes”); or from Romans 8:31-39 (nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus; if God is for us, who is against us?)
Light a Candle
Light a floating candle and set it carefully upon the water in the bowl.
Bring to mind all those you remember with thanksgiving on this day.
Bring to mind all those you remember with the pain of separation on this day.
Bring to mind the unlikelihood of fire and water dwelling together, and remember that at your baptism, the water of promise and the fire of the Holy Spirit met upon you.
Choose one or more of the following prayers to conclude your meditation, or offer your own:
For the Absent
“O God, whose fatherly [or loving] care reacheth to the uttermost parts of the earth: We humbly beseech thee graciously to behold and bless those whom we love, now absent from us. Defend them from all dangers of soul and body; and grant that both they and we, drawing nearer to thee, may be bound together by thy love in the communion of thy Holy Spirit, and in the fellowship of thy saints; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” (BCP 1979, 830)
For those we Love
“Almighty God, we entrust all who are dear to us to thy never-failing care and love, for this life and the life to come, knowing that thou art doing for them better things than we can desire or pray for; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” (BCP 1979, 831)
For All Saints’ Day
Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.” (BCP 1979, 245)
This rite could also be used before a Thanksgiving dinner, adding a suitable prayer or litany of General Thanksgiving at the end.
Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio, close to some family and too far from others. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland, Ohio. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing (Upper Room Books, 2020).