Sunday before All Saints Day

 Daniel 7:1-3,15-18; Psalm 149;  Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31.

The Demonic Powers will pass away before the Blessings of the Saints of the Most High. 

In my lifetime Halloween has grown from a hardly-noticed minor holiday into one of the main secular holidays of the year, especially for children and merchants.  It is not (quite) a religious holiday, but like Mardi Gras, it is the EVE of a major religious observance, in this case All Saints Day. 

All Saints Day has been observed since ancient times in both Western and Eastern Christian traditions (though in the East it is on the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost).  Among various ideas of its origin, the one I think is most fitting is this:  In 609 CE, Pope Boniface IV consecrated the old Roman Pantheon (temple to all the gods), turning it into a Christian church.  (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd ed., p. 36; Wikipedia, “Pantheon, Rome.”)  In place of all the old Roman gods (and emperors who had been elevated to divine status) there were now celebrated all the martyrs and saints of the Christian world.  While the year had many individual saint’s days, this was All Saints Day. 

Many Protestant churches, after the Reformation, ceased to recognize saint’s holy days, and eventually November 1st (or the Sunday before it) was re-christened Reformation Sunday, remembering when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door.  More recently, many Protestant churches in America, in harmony with the tradition of Dia de Los Muertos in Mexico, have made this Sunday a day for celebrating and naming dear people who passed during the previous year. 

Nevertheless, now-a-days, Halloween is a descendent of the time when all the evil powers were out doing their last marauding – because come dawn, all the holy people of heaven and earth would flood the streets and alleys with holiness!! 

The Lectionary readings for All Saints Day express some of that spirit of the turn from Evil forces at large to the triumph, the “inheritance,” of the Saints. 

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18.  (The regular reading for this Sunday is Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4.) 

The reading from Daniel is a teaser!!  It gives us the outer framework of an awesome vision God granted to Daniel in Babylon, a vision of four great beasts that would rule the world – and their fates. 

To get the real force of this vision we have to look at what the Lectionary skips over:  the four beasts from the Sea, especially the Fourth Beast that would be the last great power of evil before the coming of God’s Reign. 

  • The First Beast is lion-like; it represents the rule of Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon (Daniel 7:4). 
  • The Second Beast is like a bear; it represents the rule of Cyrus and the Persians (verse 5). 
  • The Third Beast is like a leopard; it represents Alexander the Great and the rule of the Greeks who immediately succeeded him (verse 6). 
  • The Fourth Beast is like nothing you ever saw before!  It was “terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong,” with “iron teeth,...breaking in pieces...what was left...” (verse 7). 

This Fourth Beast sprouted a group of horns (rulers), which were followed by “a little horn” with “eyes like human eyes...and a mouth speaking arrogantly” against God and the saints (verse 8).  This Beast, in later times, was identified with the Antichrist. 

The Lectionary also skips over God’s judgment on this terrifying Beast:  God sets up court on high, “and the books were opened” (7:9-10).  Immediately, “the beast was put to death, and its body destroyed...” (verse 11). 

Only then, in our reading, does the heavenly messenger explain to Daniel:  “As for these four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth.  But the holy ones [saints] of the Most High shall receive the kingdom forever – forever and ever” (verse 18). 

When all the increasingly evil powers of the earth are judged, all the saints will be saved by the Reign of God Most High! 

Psalm 149.  (The regular reading for this Sunday is Psalm 119:137-144.) 

The Psalm that accompanies the Daniel reading summons the faithful to praise God because he does indeed give the saints their reward – “he adorns the humble with victory” (verse 4, NRSV).  As the psalm goes on, however, it becomes unabashed triumphalism. 

The latter part of the psalm exults in the God who sends the faithful to crusading victory over the peoples and their kings.  “Let the high praises of God be in their throats / and two-edged swords in their hands, / to execute vengeance on the nations / … to execute on them the judgment decreed” (verses 6-9). 

This is the viewpoint of, among others, the Maccabean priest-kings as they mobilized a newly-independent Israel to conquer and convert their neighbors, the Edomites and Samaritans, during the second and first centuries BCE (Josephus, Antiquities, book 13).  It is the viewpoint of Christian crusaders in the twelfth through the fourteenth centuries CE in the Muslim lands of Palestine – crusaders who also slaughtered multitudes in Jewish communities in Europe and destroyed the Christian city of Constantinople on their way to the Holy Land. 

For chastened Christians of the twentieth-first century, there is no prospect that these could be useful words for the faithful.  Like the conclusion of the book of Esther, these are the words of people who have known bitter oppression and yearn to witness a total reversal.  Let the oppressors suffer and die as we have suffered and died for so long!  That MUST be God’s will! 

We must disavow the last half of psalm 149!  These are the words of vengeance, and must be left in silence by those who pray for peace, peace even at the cost of suffering and humiliation – in the way Christians know as that of Jesus.   

Ephesians 1:11-23.  (The regular reading for this Sunday is II Thessalonians 1:1-4,11-12.) 

This Epistle reading should be confined to verses 15-23.  Verses 11-14 are part of a passage that is so complex and convoluted that no English translation can actually resolve its opacity.  The Lectionary makers were probably interested in the “inheritance” of believers (NRSV verses 11 and 14), which refers to the future reward of the saints. 

The real message of this passage about the “saints” is in verses 17-19.  The Apostle prays that his hearers may come to know “what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.” 

This letter portrays the destiny of Christians in a fabulously vast panorama from pre-creation to consummation of the cosmos.  That is the world of the saints, those who were chosen before the world began, identified in the world by their belief, have suffered as did their savior, and have a glorious “inheritance” waiting for them in the heavenly reign of the Lord Jesus! 

Luke 6:20-31.  (The regular reading for this Sunday is Luke 19:1-10, the story of the tax collector Zacchaeus.) 

And the Gospel for All Saints Day presents as sharply as possible the great contrast between the blessedness of those who belong to Jesus and the woe-fullness of those who live differently. 

What we hear is the Beatitudes. 

In Matthew (5:3-12) there are eight blessings (or nine if you count the persecution blessing twice) – and no woes.  In Luke’s version, however,  we get equal time for the blessed and the woe-ful, each in four balanced statements, woe corresponding to blessing: 

     Blessed (verses 20-23)                                    Woe to (verses 24-26)

you poor                                                           you rich

you hungry                                                       you who are full

you who weep                                                  you who are laughing

you despised and persecuted                            you well-esteemed

 

In the churches whose faith is reflected in Luke’s Gospel, there was a massive sense of the Great Reversal that was to come (to some degree had already come).  In the long run, the “saints,” those who belong to the new age, will find ultimate fulfillment of life in the Reign of God.  The present good fortune of others will be lost, will disappear into the sand. 

But the Blessed folks also are instructed in an Ethic of the Blessed!  (Verses 27-31.) Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you!  Turn the other cheek; give your shirt to those who wrongfully take your coat.  Give to those who beg. 

Or – to sum it all up in one awesome statement – “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Verse 31.) 

Because the “saints” are already blessed, because they have their “inheritance” waiting for them in God’s Reign, they are free to live without resentment, without jealousy – to live without the “vengeance” that is so wide-spread among people who do not know the blessing that God grants to All the Saints!!   

 

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