All Saints, All Souls, and the Return of Christ

I’m preaching this Sunday, when we at St John’s By The Gas Station – along with thousands of Lutheran congregations around the world – celebrate All Saint’s Sunday.  I find myself a bit confused by the festival of All Saints in our Lutheran practice.  On this day we remember our loved ones who have died in the past year – "saints" – who have gone before us.  Yet we hear a Gospel text of blessings and woes that reminds us of our callings to live as "saints" today.  And in the proper preface for the day we recall the "witness of the saints," who with the choirs of angels and the hosts of heaven praise God’s name.  It seems to me that our Lutheran practice of All Saints refers, even if in muddled fashion, to three kinds of saints – the exemplars of faith who have gone before us, other departed souls, and living saints today.

This sounds a lot like the three expressions of the Church my friend Derek outlined two years ago in a wonderful post, Musings on All Souls.  He writes (bullet formating my emphasis):

Traditionally we spoke of the

  • Church Militant (all of us living folks
    here on earth still slogging away),
  • the Church Expectant (those who
    have died and are generally hanging around waiting for the
    resurrection), and   
  • the Church Triumphant (those souls who are already participating in the fullness of God and who are – even as you read this – interceding before the throne of God on behalf of us poor slobs).

This way of describing the church corresponds to the Church’s traditional manner of honoring and remembering the departed over a span of two consecutive holy days.  On All Saints Day (Nov 1) the Church honors the Church Triumphant, the capital ‘S’ Saints, those faithful models of the Christian life who have departed and are interceding on our behalf (ie, St Francis, St Anthony, St Catherine, etc. – all those Saints the Reformers threw out with the Church’s bathwater).  On All Souls Day (Nov 2), the Church commemorates the Church Expectant, the faithfully departed, ie, our friends and family who have gone before us.  Today, however, we in the Lutheran Church throw them all together in one day, All Saints Sunday.

We do not use the language of the Church Expectant or Church Triumphant these days, and indeed making a distinction between the two riles our protestant and modern insistence that we’re all saints (God forbid that we lift up exemplars in the faith!).  On this topic, Derek again writes:

I think that the current protestant attempt to recover the saints in
general and All Saints in particular has really wrecked the church’s
sense of All Souls. As you probably know, the standard early 21st
century protestant take is that everybody gets to be a saint. Yeah, I
know there’s *some* theological basis for that…but where does it leave
All Souls? If we’ve already celebrated all the baptized yesterday, who
were we celebrating today? All the non-Christian dead? I mean–in one
sense, yes, since we are celebrating literally all souls but
The way to recover it, as far as I can see, is to draw the line and
say–look, yes, we’re all saints in one sense but in another sense some
people really did do an exemplary job of showing forth the love of
Christ in their lives. These people really should be held up as
exemplars and as intercessors.

Too often All Saints Sunday becomes a sort of shared funeral service to remember loved ones who have died.  Whereas such a remembrance is important and should take place, I think we Lutherans can benefit from focusing on the capital ‘S’ Saints  every now and then, as models of the Godly life and exemplars of faith.  Oh how talk of a Godly life rankles us!  Just ask most seminarians how they feel about Vision and Expectations, our church’s statement on clergy conduct!  But that’s the stuff of another post.  More on topic, we Lutherans should further explore our understanding of the Church Triumphant, those Saints who praise God’s name in eternity and – perhaps even – intercede on our behalf.  (I teeter on believing in the intercession of the Saints.  See my post, The Company of Saints, written last year during my 9-month residency as a hospital chaplain.)

Finally, one of the reasons I resonate with this three-fold description of the Church is that I have a hard time believing in heaven the way most people talk about it – that upon death, one’s soul shoots up into heavenly paradise like a rocketship heading toward the moon.  Rather, I understand the afterlife in a "Church Expectant" way.  I see in Scripture an understanding that while some exemplars in the faith indeed ascend to our Father in heaven – Elijah and Stephen, for example – most of us will die and rot in the ground, waiting for the return of Christ and the resurrection of the dead.  Not the sweetest sounding thing, but that’s what I see. 

A strong belief in a universal afterlife of heavenly paradise weakens our church’s expectant hope for Christ’s return.  If we all just go to heaven upon death, why bother believing in a second coming or a resurrection of the dead?  What need is there for any other work of God?  For death initiates a period of waiting, a season of Advent, for the return of Christ.  In death we are not separate from Christ – for Paul in Romans teaches us that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus – but I do not believe that we are automatically whisked away into heaven, either.  There is a waiting.

And so I wish that we Lutherans would celebrate the All Saints and All Souls holy days in their intended fashion, as a way to lift up those Saints as exemplars of faith, join with them in praise of God, and (perhaps, yes) ask for their intercession on our behalf (again, see my old post for my thoughts on this), while also remembering and praying for those beloved souls who have gone before us and who are waiting – indeed, as we here on earth are waiting – for Christ to come again and bring us to eternal life.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

5 thoughts on “All Saints, All Souls, and the Return of Christ

  1. Of course, the three distinctions are helpful (really). and there is a place for celebrating exemplars of the faith. But I don’t think I would want to limit those exemplars to people that the RC church has canonized. There are also a lot of non-famous exemplars.
    Actually, lately I’ve been thinking about two books: James Martin’s book My Life with the Saints and a book called Reading the Bible with the Damned. I think if I let those two books talk to each other, it would be a fascinating (and truthful) conversation.

  2. I do get you on “church expectant”, although I’ve heard some other ways to slice and dice this. but my problem is: how do you divide expectant and triumphant? yes, there is Elijah and Moses, but… do you divide them based on their works? do you say they have “better faith” than us? then you make faith into a work, I think. The problem for Lutherans on both All saints/all souls (the latter is not on our calendar) is preaching on people’s faith or works or whatever, instead of preaching Christ.
    btw, I don’t have any problem with the call to holy living, and didn’t have problems with Visions and Expectations, but had a couple of boyfriends (single at the time) who did.

  3. Diane,
    Thank you for your comments! Lots to say, but I’m pretty tired right now. Most important in this post is my belief that we have to retain the Church Expectant in our church’s language about death, afterlife, and the approaching Kingdom of God. Popular belief in Heaven kills the Church’s and the Bible’s teaching about “the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” AS I said, if we have heaven as it is popularly conceived of – as a spiritual continuation of a perfected version of our current life into celestial paradise – why do we need the return of Christ or the resurrection of the dead?
    As for the Church Triumphant . . . I don’t know how to divide Church Expectant and Church Triumphant. Whether or not we believe that the “saints” of the “Church Triumphant” are indeed in “heaven” and are indeed praying for us (and whether or not we believe that we can ask them to pray for us), I believe it is helpful for us to lift up role models of faith. Our error these days, it seems to me, is to make the Christian life so down to earth – “I’m living my baptismal vocation just by doing my daily routine” – that we lose any notion that there truly is work and effort and discipline in the Christian Life (good trees bear good fruit). We make Jesus our friend and companion, and we lose his divinity and perfection. We focus on the failures and shortcomings of the disciples and saints, rather than recalling what amazing exemplars of faith these people were. I’m not saying that they’re perfect, but I do think we need to recover an appreciation that some people did and do today live an enlightened life guided by faith in Christ and service to neighbors.
    Finally, I just don’t know what to do with the Biblical witness on Stephen and Elijah (et al) but to believe that some extraordinary saints do indeed ascend into heaven and have bypassed the whole Church Expectant, wait-around-for-the-return-of-Christ thing. And I surely don’t believe that the ascension of “saints” into heaven ended when the final book of the Bible was written. How do I determine which saints go to heaven? I have no idea, but like you I wouldn’t limit it to just those saints the Roman Catholic church has cannonized. Just like I don’t know how Christ shows up in the bread and wine, I don’t know how and for whom this whole ascension, Church Triumphant, thing happens. But I believe it does, and I believe we should pay it some attention.

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