The Feast of All Saints by Ed Burns

Our God, we say, is a profound mystery—infinite, unfathomable, beyond our deepest desires, beyond our greatest expectations. Recently, I was struck by this truth of our faith once again as I listened to a reading from the Book of Exodus on an early Wednesday morning at a Scripture study group in which I have participated for a number of years. In this story of the burning bush in the desert, Moses experiences a theophany—an encounter with this holy mystery we call God, and which the Book of Exodus calls Yahweh (I am who I am).

We have all heard this story many times. I surely have. On this particular occasion, however, the words struck me in a different way, a deeper way, a way in which the words seemed to go beyond themselves to a place that registered deep within me. For one brief, fleeting moment, the words felt like they were real, like they were encompassing of my whole life and history. And my reaction to this—again, just for an instant—was to shut up, to be quiet, to be silent, even to be overcome. And that was it!

As we ordinarily do on Wednesday morning, our group then proceeded to talk about the several Scripture passages that were read and our responses to them. In other words, we were back into the realm of the ordinary and the familiar.

I am by no means suggesting I experienced some kind of a vision that morning. I experienced no such thing. I did not feel compelled to remove my shoes and approach the altar before me bowed and barefoot. On the contrary, I would say I felt more like I had experienced the ordinary features of my life, my daily comings and goings, my usual concerns and worries and prayers, my wanderings and wonderings about my ordinary life at a still familiar and yet somewhat different level—at a level in which there seemed to be a momentary sense of completeness, a sense of having come full circle, or perhaps a sense of arrival, in which many disparate fragments of being a human being seemed to fall together and make sense.

Theologian Rosemary Ruether once wrote that sacraments are extraordinary experiences of the ordinary. I like that description. Perhaps that is what I have been trying to describe; that is, an extraordinary experience of the ordinary. Perhaps it was a brief sacramental moment.

During the month of November, we celebrate the Feast of All Saints. And as we do so, it is important for us to understand clearly that the saints, all of them, were ordinary people—people like you and me. They were ordinary people who were made holy by the holiness of the one who had created them. They were ordinary people who in their own familiar humanity were taken into the holiness of the Godhead itself, this strange and intimate God who said to Moses, I am who I am. Of course, that is the vocation, the call that is given and extended to every one of us. Our lives are no longer—if they ever were—simply secular.

We cannot define ourselves or describe ourselves solely in secular terms, solely in terms that lock us in upon ourselves, in terms that imprison us in a world that is going nowhere. Our lives, whether we like it or not, whether we want it or not, whether we believe it or not, are unresolved questions whose answers lie outside of and beyond ourselves. Our lives, our ordinary lives, are openings to the infinite, and it is only in seeking and finding and yielding to that infinite, in lives of love and service and compassion, that we will be able to come full circle. It is only in thirsting for the infinite—and we all do, whether or not we realize it—that we will discover that extraordinary mystery, the I am who I am of our lives, in our ordinary comings and goings.

Recently, I came across a wonderful article entitled “Christians in Hollywood” by Ron Austin. He frames his article as a “dramatic conflict between two characters, a Christian and a Hollywood skeptic.” The “skeptic” is described as one who has rejected a worldview involving any such thing as a transcendent order in reality. What I appreciated about the article is the balanced and respectful view that the author holds towards each of his protagonists. Both the Christian and the skeptic are subject to the author’s critical and insightful eye. He does not leave the Christian easily off the hook, although he himself is Christian. He acknowledges that “while Hollywood’s subculture has become more open to spiritual values during the last decade, it bears a residual suspicion of religion in general and of Christianity in particular.” And he goes on to describe convincingly why this residual suspicion towards Christianity persists. But he also addresses some gaps and inconsistencies and unanswered questions with respect to the positions held by the Hollywood skeptic.

He describes Hollywood as being “at the center of the crisis of modernity.” That is, a crisis consisting of not only “a turning away from traditional religion,” but one that “comes from the loss of belief in the alternatives to religious faith,” from those rival pseudo-religions of psychoanalysis, sexual liberation and political utopias. He concludes, “With a handful of idealistic exceptions, few in Hollywood believe any longer that politics can answer the futilities of the human condition.”

Indirectly, the author is making a strong case for a religious faith rooted in the reality of a transcendent order. In the belief and convictions of traditional Judeo-Christian faith, that transcendence is a mystery that has entered human history and continues to speak to us today in the words of Exodus, I am who I am; I am the One who is holy and who makes you holy by being among you and sanctifying your ordinary lives.

In her book Friends of God and Prophets, Elizabeth Johnson gives us a description of how this works, of how ordinary people become holy, of how the God of Exodus connects with our own individual and communal lives:

People connect with the holy mystery that surrounds their lives as they actually live in the world, in non-heroic moments, in their efforts to be decent and just, in puzzling over setbacks and suffering, in appreciating and trying to protect nature, in trying to work out relationships harmoniously, in the gift and the task of every day—in this, every bit as much as in the peak religious experiences of personal and communal life.  

Earlier, I described an experience which I characterized as a sacramental moment, one that for me seemed to be un-dramatic and familiar, and at the same time profound. I believe a legitimate case can be made for describing our vocation to holiness as a process of going from the familiar of our ordinary lives to the more deeply familiar, a process of moving from one level of our humanity to an even deeper level of our humanity, and the end stage of this process will be for us to discover both God and our true selves simultaneously.

We know that most of us are not heroic or extraordinary people; and yet we believe that all of us are called to be holy, which is another way of saying all of us are called to be with God. This is quite amazing. It is what one theologian has called “the best-kept secret of the church”!

As we recall and celebrate the Feast of All Saints, let us rejoice in the knowledge that the secret is out! Something almost too good to be told has been told to us: We are all capable of being with God, and whenever we are with God and God is with us, we are holy.

Ed Burns is a family therapist living in Litchfield, Connecticut. He preaches monthly at Trinity Episcopal Church in Milton, Connecticut.

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