Running Into Our Past
I've had conversations with several people who recently attended their high school class reunion. They agreed that some of those people looked old! Each of them described how it felt to come face to face with their own past in often surprising and sometimes disturbing ways. The truth is that we can no more escape our past than a turtle can escape its shell. Sometimes it's a painful burden. Often, it's a beautiful gift.
An Incommunicable Past
Willa Cather wrote an eloquent description of this experience in her novel, "My Antonia." Jim Burden is the storyteller. Twenty years after the main scenes of the novel, he returns to the farm community on the American prairie where he grew up with his best friend, the Bohemian immigrant girl, Antonia. Cather describes her as "battered but not diminished" from the hard life of a poor farm family. Jim walks down the old roadway where they first met. Cather has Jim say:
"The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man's experience is. For Antonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny ... Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past."
I've read and reread that passage as I've been thinking about All Saints' Day. While the world is fascinated with Halloween, for the church "All Hallowed Evening" is just the pregame show for the big event which celebrates the lives of all those who have gone before us from this life into the life triumphant. John Wesley called it "a day I peculiarly love."
The Communion of the Saints
The creed says that we believe in "the communion of the saints." One of the older liturgies for Holy Communion declares that we break the bread and share the cup "with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven." I can't explain all of that, but I believe it. Better yet, I experience it, particularly on All Saints' Day.
When we gather around the table on Sunday, it's as if the ordinary saints - Peter Marshall called them "the saints of the rank and file" - are so near that we could reach out and touch them. It's like coming back home to the place that defines our lives. It's the reminder that we didn't make this Christian life up on our own the day we arrived on the scene. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we possess with all the saints who have gone before us "the precious, incommunicable past."
But it isn't just about the past. It's as if they are in the bleachers, cheering us on, encouraging us, challenging us, during our time on the field. The children's song, "I Sing a Song of the Saints of God" gets it right with its refrain, "And I want to be one, too."
They'll all be here in worship with us Sunday as we remember the members of this church family who have died in the past year and reclaim our faith for the future. I hope you'll be here, too.
Don't forget to set your clocks to "fall back" on Saturday. We don't want you to miss the celebration!
Rev. Dr. James Harnish is Senior Pastor at Hyde Park UMC.