On a recent walk through the Entertainment District in Toronto with my family, my eyes were drawn to a maple leaf-like star embedded in the pavement under my feet. As we walked further, I could see more stars in the sidewalk, each engraved with a name. We had stumbled upon Canada’s Walk of Fame – 173 stars of notable Canadians, including comedians, actors, singers, athletes and luminaries in various fields.
The Church has its own “stars” whom we call “saints.” They are not famous for their athletic prowess, stage presence or creativity. Rather, they are stars because they embody the holiness of God, even if imperfectly. In his book, For All the Saints, Canadian priest and writer the Rev. Dr. Stephen Reynolds described saints as “Christians who in various ways, often against great odds, showed an extraordinary love for Christ.”
On All Saints Day – Nov. 1 – we call to mind these great stars of the Church. We think of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, who brought the good news of Christ by the gospels that bear their names. We think of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who said “yes” to God’s plan of salvation, and Mary Magdalene, who was the apostle to the apostles after the resurrection of Jesus. We remember Peter, James and John, and the other disciples who left behind one life to follow Jesus into a new one. Saints are those through the ages who have demonstrated an extraordinary love of Christ.
But there are modern saints, too! A parish in our diocese recently installed stained-glass windows of the Rev. Florence Li Tim-Oi who, in 1944, was the first woman ordained to the priesthood in the Anglican Communion, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose life has reflected the gospel call to equality, dignity, justice and reconciliation. There are saints among us!
One of my favourite definitions of a saint comes from the apocryphal tale of a man and his young daughter who walked into a great cathedral one day. The girl was in awe as she gazed upon the magnificence of the building. She looked up at the soaring arches, and then her eyes moved to the large colourful figures in the stained-glass windows. “Daddy, who are these people?” she asked her father. He replied, “These are God’s friends. They’re called saints.” The girl paused for a moment and then asked, “So saints are people that the light shines through?” Yes, saints are those whom the light of God shines through.
But the light of Christ shines not only through the great stars of the Church who are memorialized in stained glass. Each one of us can point to those in our own lives who have reflected Christ’s love and helped to form us in faith. These are our own stars, who have transformed our lives and communities through the power of God’s love.
That’s why the Church sets aside another day – Nov. 2 – as All Souls Day. Again, in the words of the Rev. Dr. Stephen Reynolds, on All Souls Day, “we especially remember those who have touched our own lives, and the men and women of our own parish [or community] whose good works have sustained and enhanced the ongoing life of our Christian community.” On All Souls Day, we remember that our own loved ones are also part of the great cloud of witnesses.
One of the most powerful moments for me on All Souls Day is making space within the prayers to read the names of those who have died. In some churches, candles are lit as the names are read. It’s a wonderful opportunity to remember loved ones who, in the words of that lovely prayer, “now rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that multitude which no one can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom in the Lord Jesus we forevermore are one.” We give thanks for the ways in which God’s light shone into our lives through them.
A final image comes to mind as we enter this season. It comes from a well-known hymn, in which the saints are seen to shine like stars in the presence of their Redeemer.
Who are these like stars appearing,
These before God’s throne who stand?
Each a golden crown is wearing;
Who are all this glorious band?
Alleluia! Hark, they sing,
Praising loud their heavenly King.
I wish you a blessed celebration of All Saints and All Souls.
(References are from For All the Saints: Prayers and Readings for Saints’ Days, compiled by Stephen Reynolds. ABC Publishing: Toronto, 2007. p. 328 & 330.)