For ALL the saints

It is time for my annual plea for my Episcopal readers to petition their bishops for the use of the old Book of Common Prayer All Saints’ Day lectionary.  I do this not because of my general disdain for the RCL, which I readily embrace, but because, quite honestly, the Ecclesiasticus reading is just too good to miss, and as one of few Protestant denominations that holds the books of the Apocryphal to be sacred texts, we shouldn’t forego an opportunity to read from it.

What makes a random lesson from a random book worth writing the Bishop for?  It is because we need a vibrant and deep understanding of sainthood in times like these.  Our news cycle is full of stores of famous men, mostly because they are doing terrible things.  Our lives are inundated with stories of violence, power, manipulation, and oppression.  Daily, we endure an almost constant barrage of the names of men who are famous for doing despicable things.  Violent racists and anti-semites have become the famous men of our time, and it seems reasonable that we should listen to the author of Ecclesiasticus and focus our attention on those who “have perished as though they never existed.”

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It is the custom here at Christ Church to hold a service of choral evensong on the Sunday after All Saints’ Day.  During the service, a necrology is read.  There, in the midst of sacred space, in the middle of our worship of Almighty God, we pause to remember those whose names are not written on monuments or carried by the news, but regular folk who have lived their lives seeking the Kingdom of God.

You see, the reality of All Saints’ Day that Ecclesiasticus names so well is that it is a day set aside to remember any and all who have died in the faith of Christ.  It is our opportunity as the Church on earth to give thanks to God for those who have worked toward justice and peace, those who have tried their best to respect the dignity of every human being, those who have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and cared for the marginalized, those who have prayed and worked for the Kingdom of God to come to earth as it is in heaven.

In a world that prefers to name the infamous men, it is the church’s job to lift up as holy exemplars those who might become as though they were never born, but in their day, did what they could to make this world a better place.

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Let us sing the praises of famous men…

In an email to his clergy, the Bishop of my diocese gave us permission to use the Propers for All Saints’ Day from the old Book of Common Prayer Lectionary.  As I read that note, almost an aside at the end of a longer letter, my heart rejoiced.  “He gets it!” I thought, “There is still the heart and soul of a parish priest behind that purple shirt.”  As you might have guessed by now, I am of the opinion that the BCP lectionary is far superior to the RCL on the Feast of All Saints’.  IT isn’t because of the Gospel lesson, on  which I am so fond of preaching: both give us a version of the Beatitudes, more on that tomorrow.

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Instead, it is the passage from Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 44:1-10, 13-14, that I find so very appealing.  The pericope begins with a lack of gender neutral language that is uncommon in the NRSV, but if one looks past the use of men when it could just as easily be “men and women,” the heart of the Feast of All Saints comes into focus.  While there is a tradition in Roman Catholicism to celebrate the Feast as a triduum: All Hallows Eve, All Saints, and All Souls, each with its own particular nuanced theological focus, in naming All Saints’ Day a Principal Feast and declaring that it should be celebrated twice, once on November 1st and again on the first Sunday following the same, the Book of Common Prayer seems to lift up this Feast as catch all for all three.

The lesson from Ecclesiasticus reminds us of the proper understanding of All Saints’ Day as a day to remember all the saints.  We remember not only those “famous men” like Augustine, Francis, and Thomas Cranmer and “famous women” like Perpetua, Clare, and Elizabeth I, but also those “who have perished as though they had never existed.”  Saints like Michael, Jim, and Anna whom we buried here at Saint Paul’s this year.  None of them was perfect, each “feebly struggled” as the old hymn says, but all of them set their faith on the sure and certain hope of the resurrection through Jesus Christ.

For those of us who are left behind, saints in the church militant waiting for the day of triumph, the call of All Saints’ Day is to live lives worthy of the title saint.  To press forward in witness of Christ’s love, to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom to the oppressed, and recovery of sight to the blind.  Some of us may be remembered as “famous men and women,” but most will leave no great lasting memory.  Still, the calling is the same: to love God, love neighbor, and change the world.

let’s talk about Ecclesiasticus for a minute

This week, the Revised Common Lectionary offers preachers a choice in Old Testament lessons.  Well, that’s not entirely true, actually the RCL offers us a choice between a lesson from the Old Testament (Deuteronomy) and the Apocrypha (Ecclesiasticus).  Every time Ecclesiasticus comes up in the Lectionary, I have to Google it because my HarperCollins Study Bible lists it by the title Sirach in the Table of Contents.

Whatever you call it, the book is assumed to have been written by a teacher called Ben Sira, which I think means son of Sirach and is where the alternative title for this book comes from.  It was written somewhere between 200 and 180 AD as a set of instructions (a book of Wisdom) for the people of Israel to hold onto as Judea was the battle ground between the Seleucids from Antioch and the Ptolemies in Egypt.  The book carried enough importance that it was included in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, and therefore held a place in the Christian canon very early on.  As time has gone by and as Jewish leaders have argued over the validity of Sirach in their own canon, it has come to be included in various ways across denominations, with more reformed traditions excising it entirely. (Thanks HarperCollins Study Bible and wikipedia for dropping this knowledge on us)

What really gets me about the optional text from Ecclesiasticus for Sunday is just how non-Christian it is.  Or, should I say, just how non-post-reformation Christian it is.  This section from chapter 15 makes the book of James sound soft on works righteousness.  Just read the opening sentence, “If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.”  Hey now!  Couple this with Jesus’ difficult teaching on the Law and you could find yourself deep in down the road of Pelagianism, a fourth century heresy that is gaining in popularity these days.


It is a tricky passage, and I’m guessing most preachers will choose Deuteronomy instead, but it at least deserves some thought.

Rest in Peace

I probably don’t need to offer an apology for having not written a blog post in a week, but I will anyway.  I take my commitment to reflect on the Scriptures quite seriously.  I can feel it when I’m not engaging the Bible on a regular basis.  Besides, I was only recently added to the list of bloggers linked to by textweek.com, and I don’t really want to screw up something that big and cool.  Be that as it may, life’s been downright crazy since 1am on October 20th and I’m only now beginning to feel like I’ve actually slept, like my brain is really functioning, like I have anything cogent to say.

As the secular calendar turns to All Hallows Eve and the Church prepares to celebrate All Saint’s/All Soul’s Day on November 1 and 2, I feel like this last day of my work week is the perfect to time to restart my blogging routine so that I can hit the ground running come Monday.  Given where I’ve been over the past week and half, I feel like a reflection on the nature of All Saint’s Day is particularly appropriate, but you’ll have to forgive me if I ignore the RCL lections this week and instead hearken back to the good old days when Ecclesiasticus 44 was read in Episcopal congregations on All Saint’s Day.  For those who don’t have a Bible with the Apocryphal and Deuterocanonical books in it, Ecclesiasticus is an intertestimental book written somewhere in early 100s BC (198-180) by Jesus son of Eleazar son of Sirach and is often also referred to as “Sirach” or “The Wisdon of Jesus (Joshua) Son of Sirach.”  According to my Harper Collins Study Bible, Ecclesiasticus’ great achievement was “to combine the learning typical for the ancient Near Eastern and Israelite wisdom traditions with the commandments of Moses found in the Torah.”  A noble task, to be sure, but because the text is so long and the Apocryphal is used so infrequently, (even less now that we’re RCL) most of this book is left to obscurity.

This is a real shame because the lesson from Ecc 44 is quite possibly one of the most beautiful passages in Scripture.  The NRSV translates verses 1-10 and 13-14 this way:

Let us now sing the praises of famous men, our ancestors in their generations. The Lord apportioned to them great glory, his majesty from the beginning. There were those who ruled in their kingdoms, and made a name for themselves by their valor; those who gave counsel because they were intelligent; those who spoke in prophetic oracles; those who led the people by their counsels and by their knowledge of the people’s lore; they were wise in their words of instruction: those who composed musical tunes, or put verses in writing; rich men endowed with resources, living peacefully in their homes–all these were honored in their generations, and were the pride of their times. Some of them have left behind a name, so that others declare their praise. But of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them. But these also were godly men, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten; Their offspring will continue forever, and their glory will never be blotted out. Their bodies are buried in peace, but their name lives on generation after generation.

As my family continues to cope with the sudden loss of my aunt and uncle, this passage speaks to me in ways it has not in years past.  My aunt and uncle became famous, at least in death, for their requisite 15 minutes, as two of five killed in a particularly terrible accident in a place where five people don’t die at once with much regularity.  Their lives became something of a point of interest for a few days, but by now, David A. Russell and Michelle G. Russell, both now buried in peace, can probably be counted as those who have perished as though they had never existed.  Except no one really perishes that way, or at least only a few very unfortunate souls do.  The vast majority of human beings, when they perish, are remembered by at least one other person.  Our lives are constantly intersecting with others.  We were created by the Triune God of Relationship to be in relationship.  We are all blessed to know and be known by others.

Which is, I think, what makes All Saints’ Day so important a feast day.  We remember all those who lives are closely linked with ours, and, if we’re lucky, we take the time to reflect upon those whose lives maybe weren’t so closely linked.  May their souls and the souls of all the departed, by the mercy of God, rest in peace.