(The following is a heavily edited and updated version of a similiar post from three years ago, All Saints, All Souls, and the Return of Christ.)
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 several 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 traditionally honored 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 that, for better or for worse, were thrown out with the Reformation's bathwater). On All Souls Day (Nov 2), the Church commemorated the Church Expectant, the faithfully departed, ie, our friends and family who have gone before us.
This distinction is all but absent in the Lutheran Church, and I'm not sure that All Souls was ever really practiced among Lutherans. Rather, we remember both the Church Triumphant and the Church Expectant on one day, All Saints Sunday.
But we don't use the language of 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. Arguing for the recovery of All Souls Day, Derek supports maintaining the language (and distinction) of Church Expectant and Church Triumphant:
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 [on All Saints], who were we celebrating today [on All Souls]? 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.
Now, I don't share Derek's concern with recovering the practice of All Souls Day (the subject of his post), but I am concerned with about how the church looks at the dead and the promise of their resurrection. As we bring all the blessed dead together into one pool and celebrate on All Saints their presence among the heavenly hosts and with God himself, we lose something.
First, we lose an emphasis on the life and witness of those who were truly exemplars in the faith. Too often All Saints Sunday becomes a sort of shared funeral service to remember loved ones who have died. Whereas such a remembrance is a blessed and holy and wonderful thing, I think we Lutherans can benefit from focusing on the capital 'S' Saints every now and then – modern and ancient, those canonized by Rome and those recognized in a more ecumenical context – as models of the Godly life and exemplars of faith. We Lutherans could benefit from a further exploration of our understanding of the Church Triumphant, those Saints who praise God's name in eternity and – perhaps even – intercede on our behalf. (If they're not interceding on our behalf, what exactly are they doing in paradise anyway? I teeter on believing in the intercession of the Saints. See my post, The Company of Saints, written several years ago during my 9-month residency as a hospital chaplain.)
Most sigifnciantly, however, our confused practice of All Saints helps to perpetuate an unfortunate yet commonly held view of heaven – that upon death, one's disembodied soul shoots up into 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 do 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 the soul's eternal dwelling in 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? Indeed, such a view of heaven – that our life's goal is to have our souls transported to a disembodied spiritual realm – leads us to care less for our bodies and for the created world, and to shrug our shoulders at our Lord's promise to come again and remake the world, to join heaven and earth in a new creation. "Thy Kingdom come," we pray, and in the creed we confess, "We believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come." But these commitments are largely disregarded by the belief in heaven as a disembodied spiritual realm and final destination for souls.
Holy Scripture and the church's tradition teaches that 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 we are not automatically whisked away into heaven, either. There is a waiting. That is why old tombstones used to read, "Rest in Peace," for it was beleived that death was a rest until our Lord's final wake-up call. What exactly that waiting looks like, what level of consciousness we may or may not have in that period of waiting, I have no idea. But it is a waiting in the love and embrace of our Lord, so I figure it's got to be pretty good.
Lutherans will likely never celebrate All Saints and All Souls as distinct celebrations, and that's fine with me. However, perhaps we could celebrate All Saints by recalling those Saints who are exemplars of faith and join with them in praise of God, 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. In so doing, we will preserve the fundamental hope we have in Christ, that he will come again to bring his kingdom on earth.