The origin of this day began very early in the Church’s life in Ireland. As a day fixed on the Christian liturgical calendar, All Saints Day did not appear until the early 9th century in Rome. Although there are many layers of meaning that have been assigned over the centuries to the celebration of this day, at its root is a desire to express the intercommunion of the living and the dead in the Body of Christ.
I would suggest, however, that it is even more primal than that. I wonder if a day like All Saints is also expressing a human longing to know that what we see is not all that there is. During my visit to the Galapagos Islands a few years ago we were traveling to one of the islands by speedboat, when about a dozen or so dolphins came up by our side and swam next to us, occasionally leaping completely out of the water. It was enthrallingly beautiful as we watched those amazing creatures. A young German woman in her early 30’s sitting next to me said out of the blue, “Do you think they have souls?”
During a parish visitation where the parishioners placed written questions for me in a bowl, I pulled out the question, “Do you believe our dogs and cats have souls and go to heaven to be with us?” Another asked, “What do you make of the books giving accounts of people who have died and come back to life describing moments of profound light and even encounters with Jesus?”
Such questions point to a hopefulness that there is indeed something beyond this life. As I discovered in conversation, the woman asking the question about the dolphins was a non-churched veterinarian, but she posed a spiritual question not knowing anything of my life’s vocation. Perhaps questions just like these are ones we need to be considering as we look to how to be the Church in this time of the 21st century. It is not the question itself that is most significant. It is the matter of the heart to which the question is pointing – the assurance that this life is not all that there is.
All Saints Day celebrates that hope and assurance as we hear those great words from the Revelation to John: “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” All creation, what has been, what is and what yet will be, is held in God’s love. To this we are called to give witness.