All Saints Day falls on a Sunday this year. John Wesley considered it one of the greatest celebrations in the life of the church. “How superstitious are they who scruple giving God solemn thanks for the lives and deaths of his saints!” said Wesley in 1756. Year after year, he commented on the celebration of the saints. It was a festival he dearly loved.
We too love the remembrance of the saints of the church. Many congregations have different traditions for this celebration. But it seems especially pertinent to observe All Saints this year. It is possible that because of the pandemic and the safety regulations against gathering in large groups that there have been church members who have died and there was no opportunity to celebrate their lives in the body of the church. If that is the case, this All Saints Day can be an opportunity for the community to grieve together and to reclaim the hope of the Resurrection, even as you acknowledge the legacy that remains from the blessed saints of the church.
The funeral service or Service of Death and Resurrection in the Book of Worship is designed to be a service of celebration and hope, even while it helps us acknowledge the deep grief we feel at the loss of the loved one from our sight. This All Saints worship could turn to the services usually used for funeral services as a way of giving voice to the congregation’s need to acknowledge the loss. The prayers that we usually use would be helpful here, as would the opening gathering statement or Word of Grace. These words can provide a sense of comfort and hope in a difficult time.
Contact with the families who have lost a loved one can include an opportunity to provide a display of photos or objects that were meaningful or descriptive of the individual’s life, much like would have been done at a funeral or visitation. If the church is still mostly online, then a digital slideshow, necessarily brief, of the person remembered would be a meaningful way to celebrate his or her life.
There is space within the funeral service to celebrate Communion, as this is a first Sunday of the month, and many churches keep to that pattern. It is possible, of course, to lift prayers out of the Service of Death and Resurrection and put them into the more familiar Sunday morning order.
This is not a call to hold a funeral service during the usual worship hour, however. All Saints is about acknowledging those who have died recently, as well as those who have died throughout history. It is to acknowledge those who are no longer a part of this congregation but also those who are a part of the larger congregation of the body of Christ.
At the same time, All Saints Day provides an opportunity to remember the promises of eternity. It is a way of looking through all that is surrounding us now into a future that looks significantly different. Not an escape, All Saints is a call to action, to live into this possible future, the kin-dom of God, where—as our text reminds us—there is no hunger or thirst, and there is comfort for those who mourn and those who suffer in the hands of God. However you envision this hope, it is a grace to cling to in uncertain times. We look toward the multitudes who have gone before as a promise and a beacon of light in our darkness. These are they who have gone before; let us celebrate them, even as we honor them by how we live.
Rev. Dr. Derek Weber, Director of Preaching Ministries, served churches in Indiana and Arkansas and the British Methodist Church. His PhD is from University of Edinburgh in preaching and media. He has taught preaching in seminary and conference settings for more than 20 years.