Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Riding through Old Towne the other day, I spied a skeleton on a bicycle. It was a life-size plastic skeleton astride a large red bike, a figure straight out of the Mexican tradition of skeletons dressed up in street clothes, their skulls in fancy hats, ready to mark the Feast of All Souls Day, what Mexico names el Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead.
Though this particular skeleton was supposed to be halloween spooky, I found myself smiling. It seemed a happy sight, its very own beatitude, like saying, Blessed are the skeletal, for they shall ride bicycles.
I’m pretty sure St. Francis of Assisi would’ve loved it. If you’ll remember, blessed Francis saw in all things, even death, the possibility of friendship and joy. In a medieval painting of him, he stands in his usual brown robes and, while a halo marks his sainthood, his right hand rests on the shoulder of a skeleton standing beside him. The skeleton is crowned and wears a brown robe, too, only his is tattered, shredded by time. Francis himself is wide-eyed, while the skeleton is smiling. As skeletons do.
The Church has a long tradition of throwing its arm around Death, of naming it a kind of saintly friend, with us all the time, a mortal member of all creation, a necessary part of our salvation. It’s a truth we name in Baptism, saying we are baptized into the death of Jesus to live in the power of his resurrection. The holy waters bury us with Christ that we might share his eternal joy.
The baptismal cry, though, isn’t, Boo! There no howling feast. Instead it’s– forgive me here — Howleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Dear friends in Christ, you love the sound of that word better than any congregation I know. A banner cry offered with triumphal joy overtaking the losses and hard turns. Most of us have lived long enough to feel the need of it: Alleluia. You can hear the laughter of the Spirit when you say it.
Along with incense rising like prayer and baptismal water poured out in hope, Alleluia is a resurrection word for the saints above and for sinners becoming saints below. We say it to remember what God has done for us.
While Russell and I were in South Africa, we met a man named God Saves. He was from a more ancient and indigenous culture than ours, a culture of slow growth and lengthy tradition. A people bearing much yet carried by God.
God Saves spends his days reading the footprints of wild animals, identifying the white bones of giraffes and searching out the living body of the lion. We didn’t call him Mr. Saves. And we didn’t call him God either. Fact is we didn’t know his last name. We only knew the one name: God Saves, said as one word: godsaves. As if God and Salvation were one and the same thing.
And they are. God is always saving us. And those who know this best are the blessed Jesus speaks of in our gospel today.
In each of his beatitudes — in those frail states of blessedness — the saving work is God’s to do. I figure if God Saves can trust the saving work of God in his life, surely we can in ours. And must. The trouble for us is we’re just strong enough to live as if we were our own salvation, our own fix, our own source and end. As if we were God.
Sometimes we’re even tempted to think people get what they deserve. But the Beatitudes of Jesus tell us otherwise. We are all needier than we admit. Each of us is mortal and dependent. And the good news is we’re just weak enough for God to save us. And just helpless enough for God to find us wherever we are, in need of him, and to lift us into his eternal joy.
God has saved you, is saving and will save you. The first gift of your salvation is a God who loves you and in Christ has done the heavy lifting. And yet, like all the best gifts, it’s given for the sharing. Salvation asks you to ride with it in joy overtaking the losses, to throw one arm around it and the other around the wounded people who come to you in need of God’s saving love.
All Saints is how we remember who carried and carries us here. How we remember who saved and saves us. It’s also how we remember the saints who’ve gone before us marking the saving work of God that will carry us to them in the fullness of time. Alleluia, howleluia, alleluia.