Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Preacher's Study - All Saints, Year C

The Preacher’s Study
First thoughts about next Sunday’s sermon
(All Saints’ Day, November 1, 2013, or observed on Sunday, Nov 3)

William H. Petersen

                                     Contextual Considerations

The festival of All Saints is the last major feast day of the liturgical year. It has been particularly beloved by Anglicans, perhaps because of its origin in the British Isles before migrating to Rome and becoming by the eighth century a set feast on November 1st for the entire western church. It is the only festal day of the medieval sanctorale (apart from persons named in the New Testament) to have survived in the calendar of the English Reformation.

In modern times, the continuing significance of the day is attested by the 1979 American BCP and the 1985 Canadian BAS. In setting forth the calendar of the church year, both books make special note that, though the day falls invariably on November 1st, it may be celebrated on the Sunday following. This exceptional rubric affirms, first, that the observance is principally a feast of Christ according to the rule for all Sundays, and secondly, it tacitly recognizes that most people today do not or cannot attend weekday liturgies. Thus, to highlight its importance, the feast is, for all intents and purposes, transferred to the Sunday following.

For Anglicans, as well as for others who have adopted the Revised Common Lectionary, the observance has been further enriched by provision of a three-year cycle of readings for the day. Thus, we are not limited every year, as was previously the case, to only a single set of lections, viz. Ecclesiasticus (“let us now praise famous [sic] men”), Revelation (“the multitude...standing before the Lamb”), and Matthew (the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount).

As the final major feast of the sanctorale, the observance of All Saints provides a fitting culmination of the liturgical year as well. The festival in itself provides a vision of the corporate nature of salvation, indeed implied by Christ’s resurrection, but in this celebration the Paschal Mystery reaches toward its full manifestation. The petition of All Saints is best realized by Charles Wesley’s hymn Love Divine: “Finish then thy new creation; pure and spotless let us be; let us see thy great salvation perfectly restored in thee: changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place, till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love, and praise.”

All Saints, as a watershed moment, also marks a conclusion of the liturgical year. The atmosphere, indeed, the focus and content, of the lections for the seven Sundays following All Saints day are exclusively eschatological as befits the primary emphasis of Advent at the start of the new liturgical year. It is only on the Sunday before Christmas that the focus begins to change from an emphasis on the full manifestation of God’s reign, transitioning at the last moment to an incarnational focus on the Nativity. There will be more about an expanded understanding of Advent in weeks to come.

                                     Reflection on the Lections

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18. Apocalyptic vision rather than prophecy is the strategy of choice for writers, inspired or otherwise, when dealing with matters that do not safely allow explicit reference. This passage from the beginning of the second part of Daniel (ca. 165 BC) is a fair representation of the genre. Here, however, the passage is truncated to emphasize two items pertinent to All Saints: an affirmation of the ultimate triumph of God’s reign against its foes or any powers inimical to it and, secondly, as a reference to Israel’s regard for God’s “holy ones” who will see this victory. Among Christians, the Orthodox have outshone others by holding up in liturgical observance and iconography the sanctity of figures from the Hebrew Scriptures. There is some value in putting this before contemporary western Christians, if only as a homiletical aside or contextualization.

Psalm 149. Older translations of this psalm (“Let the saints be joyful with glory,” vs 5) go far toward explaining why it was traditionally appointed when only one set of lections was provided for All Saints’ Day. However, it remains a mystery (and not one of the good kind!) why the entire psalm is still indicated for Year C. The implied or explicit glorification of violence in verses 6-9 is totally inappropriate to the day. It is strongly recommended, therefore, that these imprecatory verses not be read, much less sung, but that this gradual be limited to verses 1-5.

Ephesians 1:11-23. This passage aptly sets forth the Pauline theology of the Church as the Body of Christ (referenced also in the collect for the day: “one communion...in the mystical body”). Here the promise and power of the resurrection for the human community and, indeed, the whole creation is made explicit in the communion of saints, whether among and between those who have gone before and the church present or to come. This not only gives occasion to the preacher to set forth the doctrine of All Saints Day in a “true and lively” manner, but also to bring the missional aspect of the celebration into focus: as love – even across the chasm of death – is the bond of life, so faithfulness in living the vision is vital for those who celebrate the feast.

Luke 6:20-31. Here the Year C reading for All Saints provides an almost singular instance in the liturgical year when the injunction to love our enemies and to do good to those who hate us is publicly proclaimed. Whether in the contemporary global context or in national or local situations, the preaching opportunity presented here is not to be missed. This passage as a whole, of course, contains the Lukan version of the beatitudes (and woes) from the so-called Sermon on the Plain and, as such, provides a wealth of formational emphasis for what goes to make up sanctity or what must characterize the “holy ones” of God, that is, all those baptized into the Body of Christ.

William H. Petersen is Emeritus Dean & Professor of Bexley Hall Seminary, Columbus, OH. An Honorary Member of APLM Council, he is Consultant to the Ecumenical Office, Episcopal Church Center, NYC, and Founder & Convener of The Advent Project, North American Academy of Liturgy

The painting pictured at the top of this post is “Communion of Saints” by Elise Ritter. Her work is available through http://www.eliserittergallery.com/