The Wikipedia article on All Saints day states, “Christians who celebrate All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day do so in the fundamental belief that there is a prayerful spiritual bond between those in heaven and the living.” Growing up in a Protestant tradition that did not celebrate All Saints day this was a foreign concept to me until I was in my early thirties. Then I found myself in a different Protestant church that celebrated All Saints day with banners full of small jingle bells. The banners hung in the narthex of the church for the two or three weeks preceding All Saints. The congregation was invited to pin the jingle bells on the banner in memory of a beloved “saint” in their life. I thought it was a nice idea so the first year I pinned a bell on for my youngest sister. When I was twenty-four she died in a car accident. She was a vibrant, active, thoughtful and faith-loving sixteen-year-old.
I also hung a bell for my ninety-something grandmother even though she was still living – a fact that she begrudgingly accepted as God’s will. Having already lost my grandpa, two of her eight children, a teenage grandchild and a great-grandchild to death I know God had heard from her about this seeming injustice. In hanging those two bells I unconsciously built that “prayerful spiritual bond”, a bridge if you will, between “those in heaven and the living” with myself in the middle.
On All Saints Sunday that year the bell banners were the focal point of the opening processional in worship. They rang in jubilant chorus over the congregational singing of “For All the Saints.” As I listened I suddenly understood that bridge of prayer in an intuitive and instinctual way, in my body and heart, beyond my intellect. Hearing the bells of all the community’s saints ring out in concert with our song the connection between those in heaven, the cloud of witnesses and the living was visceral. I understood that my sister, my aged grandmother, my three year old son who had helped me pin on the bells, and I were all part of God’s community of beloveds, of saints, and we would always be deeply connected. To this day All Saints has always been one of my most loved liturgical celebrations.
How can the stories of “official” saints of the church help us understand the saints that we live among or have known in our families and faith communities? Is this celebration of the prayerful spiritual bond between heaven and the living deep and more profound than the emotional memories of those who have died, as meaningful as those might be? These are the questions we can ask ourselves as we prepare to celebrate on All Saints Day this year.