It's Like the Christian Version of Memorial Day: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 1 November 2010
I know that usually the weekly lectionary post (when I manage to write one in a given week) is a preview of the next Sunday’s texts. This week, because Monday is such an important and too often a forgotten day in the Church calendar, I decided to change things up.
If my own congregation were capable of being shocked by what I say when I address the congregation, they might have been displeased that I “went Catholic” in my communion meditation on October 31 of this year. (That said, my communion meditations are so often rooted in Church history that they aren’t shocked any more.) Ours is one of those congregations that’s fashionable these days as the target of mockery from folks who see it as an opportunity for candy-based evangelism: because we’re situated in a neighborhood that’s got a higher-than-average crime rate, we started a number of years ago to offer a “fall festival” every Halloween night as an alternative to trick-or-treating, and although I wasn’t able to go this year (I was in the emergency room with my son, who was wracked with strep-induced abdominal pains), in the years I’ve attended and helped out, the folks from the neighborhood easily outnumber our own congregants. But important for this reflection is that we tap-dance around the word “Halloween” with the best of ‘em.
Ours, of course, is not the only congregation which has problems with that strange word. Whether the word is too Catholic for comfort or whether churches are trying to avoid the associations with sorcery, Satanism, and other such idiocies, many stay away from the name of All Hallows’ Evening even as they prepare for the annual cultural assault on any retailers who refuse to name their December retail extravaganza after the Christ-Mass. We American Christians have strange relationships with the ecclesial contractions we brought over with us from the Old Country, and I honestly can’t fault too many people, estranged as we are from so much human history, for these little bits of ignorance.
What does disturb me is the simultaneous rejection of things like All Saints’ Day on the parts of many American Christians (my own congregation included) and embrace of civic holy days like Memorial Day. Yesterday my congregation’s sermon text was an unattached run of verses from the epistle of James, something entirely unrelated to All Saints’, and I imagine that most non-denominational Christian Churches in America treated yesterday as Any Old Sunday. But I’d put dollars down that, when the end of May comes around, the song service, the sermon, and perhaps even (and as someone who holds up Christ’s table as central to Christian life I shudder at this) the communion meditation will take on the character of a special day, a holy day around which Sunday worship must revolve. While I have nothing against America’s ignoring the day after Halloween (which is just about all that All Saints’ has become except in certain Christian circles) and elevating a day celebrating those in the employ of the government’s department of war, I do think that such a strange pairing of rejection and celebration means that our own piety (and I know full well that I’m an American Christian, so please don’t take this as any sort of declaration of independence on my part) has become far more secularized than we’d like to admit.
Today’s Ephesians text, if we choose to celebrate at least by reading, reminds us that our membership is an anatomical metaphor, that as Christians we are parts of the body of Christ, constituted on earth wherever and whenever the faithful gather. Those among us who have fallen deserve our thoughts on this day not because their “sacrifice” has earned our “freedom” (we Christians avoid that sort of idolatry, confessing that there is One who has died to give us true liberty) but because they remain part of that body, subsumed into what Hebrews calls the cloud of witnesses but nonetheless making us who remain sad because we will no longer gather with them around the table of Christ until this world and its order have been renewed and completed in the age to come. They are not “heroes,” much less “sacrifices,” but they are martyrs, those whose witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ has been closed by death even as our moments for faithfulness and apostasy lie open before us. In the economy of Church within Empire, their memory reminds us that in the company of kings and powers that pass from this world, the Church of Jesus Christ will prevail against the Gates of Hades and welcomes all who will come in to become part of the ongoing tale of the faithful.
Next week I’ll return to a reflection on the coming Sunday’s texts. For now, may the love of Christ enlarge our imaginations beyond the borders that Caesar draws on our maps and on our hearts.