A week after my close friend unexpectedly passed away, I found myself sitting on the hard wood pews of my church. Los Angeles was suffering through a hot spell in early November. Steamy haze rose from the pavement when I walked across the parking lot, making the air smell of diesel fumes. My movements felt stilted, a slow climb through thick air.
Inside was cool. I took in a long breath and felt the air sharp against my lungs. People moved with ease as they collected their bulletins and took their seats. I pressed my palms against the pew's hard angles and felt its definition—somehow bringing definition to the grief inside me.
My friend had been admitted into the hospital one morning and died the following day. The brevity of the process was jarring. I realized how quickly we can slip from this life to the next. How brief our sojourn on earth really is.
Now just a week later, on All Saints' Day, I gathered with members of my church to remember those who have gone before us. During the liturgy—sensitively placed between songs, prayers, and Scripture readings—we named the saints in our community who had died that year.
I listened as each name was read out. Behind each name was substance—a birth story, a life, family members who were present. In the last year each person had lived and breathed among us. They contributed to our church, our collective body.
When I heard my friend's name read aloud it sounded out of place. I was still waiting for her phone call to make weekend plans—not to begin the process of saying goodbye. Yet in the initial confusion of loss, I also found comfort in hearing her name listed alongside others, as if she was not alone and neither was I.
All Saints' Day
In the beginning of November, Christians from many traditions come together to remember the faithful who have passed away. We think of God's faithful people recorded in Scripture, named throughout history, and part of our churches today. Some churches divide these focuses over two days; some integrate them into one service. Whatever the method, the purpose is the same: to remember and honor all God's saints.
Throughout the New Testament, the word "saint" (from a word meaning "holy" or "set apart") refers to those who have devoted themselves to worship and serve God and follow Jesus' teachings. The apostle Paul addresses six of his letters to the saints (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians). Matthew speaks of the saints rising from the dead (Matthew 27:52 NRSV), Jesus' early followers are called saints (Acts 9:13, 26:10 NRSV), and the author of Revelation calls the saints to faithful endurance (Revelation 14:12 NRSV).
Perhaps the best image we are given of the saints is Paul's description of the church as Christ's body (1 Corinthians 12). It is made up of many parts yet is a unified whole. We each serve God through our unique functions, supporting one another to carry out a shared purpose. With Christ as our head, we are not simply individuals, but part of something bigger than ourselves. We are what some traditions call "a communion of saints." Today this communion spans across centuries, geographies, and cultures.
This image of interconnection continues in Hebrews: "As for us, we have this large crowd of witnesses around us" (Hebrews 12:1 GNT). Immediately before this, the author gives a long list of God's faithful followers, beginning with Abel all the way through Abraham, Moses, the prophets, and unnamed women (Hebrews 11). Remembering the faithful who have gone before us gives us endurance to follow in their example, to finish the race! We are joined by those past and present, and soon our names will be spoken alongside theirs.
As I joined others in my church to look back and remember the faithful, I took courage from their biblical witness. They too faced losses—they said goodbye to friends and buried loved ones. Many no doubt died prematurely. But their names have endured in the pages of Scripture and in the memory of God's people. Their lives keep speaking. And so do ours. No matter how brief the journey, we join a great crowd of witnesses to proclaim, "We are faithful because God was faithful to us first."
Want to learn more about the saints?
Who are the faithful that have died in your life? Name them in the comments below.
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