Anthropologist Margaret Mead once declared Americans to be neophiles. That is, we swoon over anything young and new. No wonder “new and improved” is stamped on everything from panty hose to vise grips. In New England less so, but we tend to deprecate tradition and history and readily respond to what is new.
But it marks the superficiality of any generation to imagine it has nothing to learn from generations past. G.K. Chesterton once said of doing this: “they become the victims of the arrogant oligarchy composed of those who just happened to be walking around at the moment.” The church and All Saints Sunday help with this.
When I was ordained in Branford, Connecticut, I invited the Reformation historian Roland Bainton to preach, already well into his eighties. I remember Mr. Bainton telling us about being an undergraduate at Yale around 1915. As a young turk, he conversed with a frail, elderly professor, Timothy Dwight the Younger. Mr. Dwight told Bainton stories of his grandfather Timothy Dwight the Elder and how he saved Yale from going the secular Unitarian path of Harvard, and abandoning its historic mission of training young clergy for Christian ministry in the church. Timothy Dwight the Elder in turn told tales of his grandfather, Jonathon Edwards.
At that, the hair stood up on the back of my neck. That one conversation with my frail mentor Mr. Bainton had spanned 250 years. Do that one more time and you are back to Martin Luther and the Reformation. Do that one more time and you are back to Thomas Aquinas. Do it again and you are back to the Crusades. Do it again and you are back to Charlemagne. Do it again and you are back to the Councils of Nicea and Chalcedon. Do it still again and Christianity was a Jewish sect persecuted by the Roman Empire. Have the conversation one more time and you have arrived in the day of a Jewish carpenter named Jesus of Nazareth.
Time is not so long. Failing to grasp that, Leander Keck calls us “inheritors of an estate who camped in the yard because they neither knew nor cared how to live in the house.” That’s what All Saints Sunday is about. Remembering not just Thomas Aquinas or Jonathon Edwards, but Georgie Brown or Grace Glendenon.
Saints’ days began in the early Church to mark the anniversary of martyrs’ deaths. Eventually, there were so many martyrs it was hard to recall each one individually. All Saints Day was established to honor all saints in one fell swoop.
In our Reformed tradition, the focus differs. It is not just about martyrs of ages past but also the ongoing sanctification of the whole people of God. Rather than put a few on pedestals as holy people set apart, we give glory to God for ordinary believers and the holiness of so many lives given for God in this and every age. On Sunday, I will read the names of the departed from the last year, and names of those buried in our Memorial Garden, with the bell tolling for each one. Then you are invited to lift up beloved souls who made an impact on your life and faith.
-Rev. Dale Rosenberger