November 2, 2014November 3, 2013November 4, 2012, All Saints Rite, November 6, 2011November 1, 2010November 1, 2009

Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9 – The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God
Isaiah 25:6-9 – On this mountain God will swallow up death. No more tears.

Psalm 24 – The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it. They shall receive a blessing from the God of their salvation. (Ps. 24:5)

Revelation 21:1-6a – Holy city coming down. No more tears.

John 11:32-44 – The raising of Lazarus

All Saints and the Reformation

All SaintsChristians of the Byzantine Tradition commemorate Αγίων Πάντων, Hagiōn Pantōn, or All Saints on the first Sunday after Pentecost. In the West, All Hallows, or Hallowmas, was celebrated November 1. This date was fixed by Pope Gregory III in the eighth century. Prior to that it may have been celebrated in May as Holy Martyrs. When pagan communities became Christian, they often kept their holiday times. Many suggest that Easter replaced the Rite of Spring and Christmas replaced Winter Solstice. Some speculate that Holy Martyrs replaced the pagan Feast of Lemures, a time to appease the spirits of the dead.

Wikipedia says, “In many Lutheran churches, All Saints’ Day and Reformation Day are observed concurrently…” since Reformation Day is October 31 and All Saints Day is November 1. “Typically, Martin Luther’s A Mighty Fortress is Our God is sung during the service… The observance of Reformation Day may be immediately followed by a reading of those members of the local congregation who have died in the past year in observance of All Saints’ Day…”

Frank Senn, in The People’s Work, A Social History of the Liturgy, suggests that Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses on the eve of All Saints Day was intentional. Frederick the Wise’s massive collection of relics were usually displayed on All Saints Day. Indulgences totaling one million years could be obtained by venerating them (which, of course, cost money). Luther abhorred this industry of death. Even the theology department at Paris had condemned the system of relics and the purchase of plenary indulgences. Luther still believed in purgatory, but in an Augustinian way, not the way it was being propagated. One could not buy ones way out of purgatory. There were no “saved up” treasures of the saints for us to access. The treasure of the church is the gospel itself. In time, Luther and Calvin would question the existence of purgatory, since they found no Scriptural basis for it. Henry the VIII also rejected the doctrine of purgatory, disbanded the chantries, but curiously never replaced it all with the doctrine of justification.

Because of the intermixture of church and state, for a city to embrace the principles of the Reformation, there had to be a government decree. Imperial cities of the empire had already been debating the ethics of indulgences, but implementing the Reformation was a more complex matter. Nuremberg was the first imperial city to embrace the Reformation by civil decree. This was done by heavy debate, followed by a vote of the city council. The papal nuncio called for the arrest of preachers preaching Reformation ideas, but they were protected by the city council.

This meant an end to masses for the dead, the Latin mass, vigils for the dead, purgatory, consecrated salt and water, and more. Of course these changes were embraced more in some places than others. Change happens slowly in the church. All this meant a severe income loss to the church, whose economy was built upon gifts to the church on behalf of the dead. The Reformation was an attack on the ecclesiastical economy.

Lutherans even went to the point of doing away with church funerals, having only a committal at graveside. It must be understood that these were strong measures taken to dismantle a very complex and entrenched pattern. They also pushed for less extravagant ceremonies, so that the poor would not be embarrassed. Prayers for the dead were eliminated. Martin Bucer acknowledges that praying for the dead is an ancient custom, but since Scripture neither commands nor speaks of it, he was for doing away with it.

The English Reformation went a similar way. Senn points out that in 1549 Cranmer’s liturgy still has the priest speaking to the dead: “I commend thy soul to God the Father almighty, and thy body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” By the printing of the 1552 Prayer Book, the dead were neither prayed for or spoken to. The committal was for the living, which committed the deceased’s body to the ground.

In the Lutheran-Catholic dialogs in the U.S. the Catholic theologians encouraged Lutherans to embrace a more permeable curtain between living and dead, rather than an iron curtain. We believe in the communion of saints. There is perhaps room for Lutherans to consider this, not as a return to a Medieval ecclesiastical economy, but as a matter of temporal perspective. In our Eucharistic liturgy we pray “with all the saints.” We don’t typically pray to them, or for them, but we can pray with them our tradition says, even encourages. In the end, Lutherans agreed that at the very least, Scripture does not forbid prayers for the dead.

In any case, we do not necessarily pray for the dead on All Saints Sunday. We give thanks for them.

The apostle Paul did not use the word saints to refer to dead people who lived exemplary lives. Paul uses the word “saint” 39 times. He refers to people who are quite alive. He refers to the recipients of most of his letters as saints in Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Colossae, etc. He encourages them to contribute to the needs of the saints in Jerusalem. He says in Ephesians 4, that the role of church leaders is to equip the saints for the work of ministry. The word ‘saint’ means a holy person. Holy means set apart for God’s purposes. Paul’s sense of the word is that the people of the way are a holy people saved by grace and called by God to be about God’s kingdom in the world.

In Protestant traditions All Saints Day becomes a time to remember those holy ones who have gone before us. We remember those faithful departed from our congregation who have passed on to eternal life. Many congregations provide an opportunity for people to come forward and light a candle in memory of a dearly departed loved one. In every congregation where I served, this was a powerful and emotional service. It was like Easter in the fall – a celebration of the hope of the resurrection, which, in a sense, every Sunday is supposed to be.


In the Revised Common Lectionary we now get the raising of Lazarus on All Saints B. This is an appropriate story since All Saints is like a little Easter in the middle of the fall, when the days are getting shorter and the darkness is gathering.

Duccio, 1310

Many congregations use All Saints as a time to remember the dearly departed of the congregation in the last year, by lighting pillar candles. In some places, congregational members can also come forward to light votive candles in memory of loved ones. Here are some no-drip, beeswax candles; people who have used these love them.

I love this painting of the Raising of Lazarus, by Duccio, ca. 1310. I like Jesus’ halo. I like the postures of Mary and Martha. I like guy in the gold shawl, blue chemise, red tights and black socks holding his nose at the stench. Art makes me laugh. But Lazarus, he looks to be in shock, and a bit peaked. Who wouldn’t? It’s not every day you wake up in a grave, wrapped like a mummy in a straightjacket. Duccio has erred though. It is almost comic to consider Jesus saying, “Lazarus! Come out!” and Lazarus actually trying to do so in that get up. Would he hop?

Sixth century mosaic, Ravenna, Italy
Sixth century mosaic, Ravenna, Italy

This next piece may be the oldest piece of Lazarus artwork we have. In this work Lazarus also seems to be incapacitated.

I searched through every piece of artwork I could find on the Raising of Lazarus. In none of them was he happy, except maybe in this one below, by Juan de Flandes, a contemporary of Luther from Belgium. He still doesn’t look happy, but perhaps at least okay with being back in the world. Look, he’s even waving at everyone. He’s either saying, “Hi,” or “Oh, wow, that was the weirdest experience of my life.”

I’ve never had a near-death experience (though my wife claims to have one every time I drive). I’ve not had a full-death experience like Lazarus. So I’m left to wonder: if Lazarus is going to die again anyway, why bother bringing him back now?

Juan de Flandes, ca 1510
Juan de Flandes, ca 1510

Of course, every good biblical scholar knows, this story is foreshadowing of the resurrection. Jesus’ raising of Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter are a taste of what is to come. It is a shadowed hint of the surprise Jesus says we have in store. It reflects the promises of Jesus and the hope that we hold deep in our hearts. It is the intuitive sense of humanity that there is more to this life than meets the eye. It is the glimmer of hope we see, as in a mirror dimly. This story is an archetype. It embodies that gut feeling we just can’t shake for some reason, that we will one day be reunited with those whom we love.

I don’t actually think that Lazarus was unhappy. In fact, Lazarus may have been so indebted to Jesus that he became the beloved disciple. The third verse in our gospel reading (John 11:3) says, “So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’” This seems to indicate that perhaps Lazarus is “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”

If so, that means Lazarus was the “disciple whom Jesus loved” that had his head at Jesus’ breast during the Last Supper. It means he was the in the boat at daybreak after a night of catching nothing: “That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake.” And it could mean that Lazarus loved Jesus so much he wrote the fourth gospel:

Peter turned and saw following them the disciple whom Jesus loved, who had lain close to his breast at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” The saying spread abroad among the brethren that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true.

I know it’s a stretch, but keep in mind, the author of the fourth gospel never identifies himself, except as “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” and according to John 11:3, that’s Lazarus. Think about it. If someone raised you to from the dead, wouldn’t that form some kind of indelible bond?

Whatever you make of Lazarus, it is a good story for All Saints. In this story Jesus weeps. We weep, too. In this story Jesus has hope. We have hope, too. I like All Saints. “I am the resurrection and the life.” It’s like a little bit of Easter in the middle of fall. We can rejoice, for though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed daily. And one day, perhaps, like Lazarus, we can rejoice for what is to come.