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Readings: All Saints’ Day

23 October 2015


Wisdom 3.1-9 or Isaiah 25.6-9; Psalm 24.1-6; Revelation 21.1-6a; John 11.32-44


Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: grant us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living that we may come to those inexpressible joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


TWO of the readings for All Saints’ Day, which falls on Sunday, are also recommended for funerals and memorial services, along with an excerpt from the story of the raising of Lazarus (Wisdom 3.1-5, 9; Revelation 21.1-7; John 11.17-27: Common Worship: Pastoral Services). This is a reminder of the intricate relationship between life and death; time past, present, and to come, in this joyful feast and its partner commemoration of All Souls the following day.

There are well-worn objections to both celebrations. Some argue that the real “saints” are the living Church, here and now, invoking the 38 references to “the saints” — the members of the newborn churches — in the Pauline letters.

Some regard prayer for the dead as pointless and unorthodox, since only God can do anything for them. It is encouraging that C. S. Lewis, who could hardly be accused of superstition or High Church tendencies, should have written to a friend:

“Of course I pray for the dead. . . I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden. At our age, the majority of those we love best are dead. What sort of intercourse with God could I have if what I love best were unmentionable to Him?” (Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer, 1964).

Treating these questions as a matter of love, and insisting on the continuity of love across the boundaries of time and eternity, offers a rationale for remembering and celebrating those whose faith has been acknowledged as an example, and those whose witness may not have claimed the attention of the world. It also gives an opportunity to remember those we have known and loved, and those who have died “alone and with no one to pray for them”.

It is not, however, a quick and easy answer, as we see in the complexity that faces Jesus as he arrives in Bethany, too late to restore Lazarus to health.

There are two ways to look at this last sign that Jesus will give before he dies about the coming of the Kingdom. On the one hand, it is possible to see it as a deliberately planned sequence of actions, with love for Lazarus and his sisters at its heart, but with the urgency of revealing God’s glory as a strategic aim (John 11.4, 40).

In that case, Jesus’s reminder to Martha that if she believed, she would see the glory of God, and his subsequent prayer (John 11.40-42), are equally addressed to the bystanders. They provide the framework that will help the witnesses to understand the full import of what they are seeing.

On the other hand, we might imagine this as closer to a dramatic production, in which the audience (here, John’s readers) are party to utterances not intended to be heard by other characters. English translations since the 1530s have been faithful to Tyndale’s “loud voice” (“he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus come forth”).

Comparison with the rubrics for Morning and Evening Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer from 1549 onwards show that “with a loud voice” is used to remind the curate that the text that he is about to read must be audible to the people. Perhaps the crowd did not hear Jesus speak to Martha about the glory to come (a puzzling remark anyway, since he has not mentioned it to her before).

Perhaps they saw him look upwards, but did not hear the words of his prayer. These things are the Gospel-writer’s directions to the readers about the meaning of the scene, not part of the scene itself. What the crowd hears is the command: “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11.43).

Then, in a symbolic move, Jesus sets Lazarus free from death (John 11.44). He will die again, which is why this scene is not a prefigurement of the resurrection. But the resurrection will come to be the lens through which this death and all death is subsequently understood — as the gateway to life in the eternal presence of the God who loved humanity enough to die our death.

If we can believe that the saints whom we honour as martyrs, evangelists, teachers, and icons of holiness “are in the hand of God” (Wisdom 3.1), and if we can hope for those we have loved in this life that God “will wipe every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 21.4), then we can begin to believe and hope the same things for ourselves.

Forthcoming Events

25 September 2021
Festival of Faith and Literature: Food for the Journey
With Stephen Cottrell, Peter Stanford, Lucy Winkett, and Rowan Williams.

20 October 2021
Does the parish need saving?
Warnings that the parish is under threat date back decades. But are claims that it is now being dismantled accurate? Join our panel for a lively online debate.

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