On Sunday our church commemorated All Saints Sunday. For many reasons, but particularly since I have engaged in work as a hospice chaplain, it has become one of my favorite Sundays of the year. It is not an easy Sunday. The day is filled with tears and the ache of separation from loved ones. For those with recent losses, the pain can be severe. However, I can’t think of a time, besides the Triduum (Good Friday/Holy Saturday/Easter), when the sting of death and our hope in Christ come into such bold relief.
For one thing, it is one of the rare days when we actually talk about “the communion of saints.”
Not long ago, I went and met with the widow of one of our patients. Neither of them were particularly religious people, but they welcomed me throughout his time of care and always appreciated when I prayed for them. She had grown up in the Catholic church, and her brother had gone to Europe to study for the priesthood. He died there in a tragic boating accident, and her family never got over the pain. Now she had lost her husband and told me she now felt a bit lost herself after having been a caregiver for many years.
But she wanted to tell me something, a story she thought I’d appreciate. Not long before he died, she said her husband started having conversations with his deceased mother. The exchanges he had with her were clear as day, she said, as though his mom were right there, physically in the room with him. There was nothing extraordinary in the content of their conversations, but she was struck by how engaged and focused he was as he spoke with his invisible parent.
This is not the first time I’ve heard a story like this. I wrote about another instance in a post several years ago. It was about a friend named George, who had lost his wife Mildred.
George had a question for me that day, too. He had been having visions of Mildred. Lying in bed, he would look over at the bathroom door, and she would be standing there, dressed nicely, smiling. When he sat up to get a closer look, she began to fade and soon she was gone. One time she was lying next to him in bed. He wondered what it meant.
I asked him how it made him feel to see her. It made him feel good, he said, when she was there. He was a little bit confused about why she did not stay.
He had asked me about this once before, but I only had a vague recollection of what I’d said then. His daughter prompted me, “I think you said something last time about how maybe this was God’s way of letting dad know that mom is okay.” I nodded.
“But George,” I said, “I think there may be something more here. Most of us have been taught to think that ‘heaven’ is a place far, far away, out there somewhere. My understanding is that it is more like another dimension all around us, right here. There’s another reality surrounding us that we can’t see, but it’s here and it’s just as real as the things we can touch. That’s God’s realm, and we call it heaven. He and our loved ones are with us, they are close to us even when we can’t see them. And for some reason, at some times, it seems like God opens the curtain a little bit and gives us a glimpse into that unseen world. There are several stories in the Bible that lead me to see it that way.”
“Maybe it’s like that verse that says, ‘In my Father’s house are many rooms,’” his daughter suggested. “Mom is just in a different room, and God cracks the door open once in awhile to remind us of that.”
I wasn’t sure about her exegesis, but she was right!
“So George, Mildred didn’t come to you from far away when you saw her those times,” I assured him. “She is here, close to you all the time. But every once in awhile, God has given you the gift of seeing her presence.”
I asked him what he thought about that, and he liked it.
In our service on Sunday, to prepare for the Table I referenced the Iconostasis in Orthodox sanctuaries. This screen separates the Nave from the Sanctuary, or better, it connects the two areas.
…the Iconostasis also has a symbolic meaning. It is seen as the boundary between two worlds: the Divine and the human, the permanent and the transitory. The Holy Icons denote that the Savior, His Mother and the Saints, whom they represent, abide both in Heaven and among men. Thus the Iconostasis both divides the Divine world from the human world, but also unites these same two worlds into one whole a place where all separation is overcome and where reconciliation between God and man is achieved. Standing on the boundary between the Divine and the human, the Iconostasis reveals, by means of its Icons, the ways to this reconciliation.
We don’t have an Iconostasis in the Lutheran church, but on Sunday we had an ark-shaped vessel filled with sand, in which people had placed lighted candles to represent their loved ones who had passed. I told the people that the candle container was placed beside the Table to remind us that we are not only meeting with the Lord in communion but we are also joining the saints in heaven as they worship before the throne. The communion of saints! On All Saints Sunday, the Table, which is always meant to be a “thin place” where we encounter heavenly reality, had an added visible dimension, one which testified to the unseen multitudes of faithful departed with whom we were encountering the risen Christ.
Heaven is not so far. Our loved ones are not so far. In God we live and move and have our being. And with him are those who rest in his care forever.
In some moments, God lets us see that more clearly than at other times.