Pandemic Liturgy for All Saints Sunday

This is one of my very favorite celebrations of the church. I have long lamented that there are not enough spaces in the church calendar to share our grief. This is one of the few.

This year, when the death toll of COVID-19 continues to rise over 200,000, it feels especially important to give space for all that we are grieving right now. In my first newsletter, I shared this old liturgy with lots of space for silence. I confessed that I didn’t think it would work for online worship but I wanted to write something else to honor this holy day. If All Saints is new to you, as it was to me not too long ago, I offer this very brief history from an old worship bulletin from one of the churches I’ve served.

As early as the fourth century, days were set aside to commemorate all the saints at once. Today we continue this tradition using the varied practices of All Saints Day, All Souls Day and the Day of the Dead all of which are celebrated on November 1 or 2. Though in the Catholic tradition where this celebration honored unknown saints and to remedy deficiencies in people’s observance of a particular saint’s day, we do not canonize or pray to saints, but we look to these towering figures of our heritage for inspiration and encouragement in our own Christian pilgrimage. All Saints Day should challenge us by presenting us with a variety of figures from different times and places whose often contradictory styles of faithfulness enlarge our notion of what it means to be a disciple and a saint.

Unlike the other prayers that I share on a weekly basis, I wanted to offer a complete liturgy for this day. I not only hope this gives our pastors some space to worship themselves, but it also allows me to play a bit more. Play is good for all our souls. I need to play even if in relishing in the joy of playing I managed to pick the epistle for Proper 27 instead of the selected readings from Proper 26. I knew I was going to ignore the lections for actual All Saints Day though there is a nod to the gospel in one of the songs I’ve selected. I decided not to change it and let the text speak to the lamentation of this time.

Gathering for Worship

Remember When by The Many is available to be freely streamed from YouTube in worship or can be purchased on a sliding scale based on congregational size here. It is covered by the CCLI license.
Invitation to Worship

Let us begin 
our lament here, O God, 
in an act of memory
of all that has happened
in all that we could not 
believe was possible
as good white people
as people who had
never known how far and wide
a virus could actually reach
as people who 
who thought we 
had enough faith. 

Show us 
what we do 
not want to remember
and what we cannot 
bear to remember
after so much has been lost
in only a few short months.
O God, let us begin here
in all full lament.

Lighting of the Christ Candle

On the central screen that guides your worship (which would usually be the primary speaker in Zoom), place a large white pillar candle upon a candle holder or even a recognizable parament from your church’s treasure of beautiful things.

Go slow. Start by laying out the parament or candle holder onto the table on screen and then slowly place the candle in the center. Using a candle lighter or just a match (but please not one of these awful things), light the wick. Do this all in silence. Create a slide to follow these words or simply pray aloud:

O Light of Christ,
bring your steadfast love
here to illuminate 
all that will be gathered here. 
Redeem us from trouble
in the fire of your love. Amen.

Readings for All the Saints

A Reading of Poetry The Truly Great by Stephen Spender

A Reading from Scripture 1 Thessalonians 2:9-10, 4:13-18

Lighting the Memory of the Saints

With the Christ candle at the center of the screen, push a basket of tealights so that it is just barely visible on screen. Use these movements as liturgical actions where you are setting the space and preparing yourself and those watching for prayer. (You’ll need room so don’t push it too close.) Begin by offering these words:

We will not be uninformed about those who have died. We grieve so many. We feel such loss even as we cling to hope. We encourage each other by remembering their names.

You may choose to have gathered a list of names from within your congregation as is your tradition each year. You may search the necrology of your church as you do every year for those that have died in the past year in your community. Or you could choose to use this list of saints that will, sadly, probably need additions before the first of November.

Paul of Tarsus
Priscilla 
Francis of Assisi
Julian of Norwich
Teresa of Avila
Martin Luther
Harriet Tubman
Sojourner Truth
Mahatma Ghandi
Martin Luther King, Jr. 
Mother Theresa
James Lipton
Ahmaud Arbery
Kenny Rogers
Rev. Joseph E. Lowery
Breonna Taylor
Vanessa Guillen
Bill Withers
John Prine
George Floyd
Cornelius Fredericks
Little Richard
Betty Wright
Priscilla Slater
Larry Kramer
Hugh Downs
John Lewis
C.T. Vivian
Regis Philbin
Herman Cain
Chadwick Boseman
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg
Eddie Van Halen

After each name is spoken, softly and gently, reach for a tealight. Light the tealight from the Christ candle and place it underneath the light of Christ so that the light of Christ radiates with the light of the saints you have named. Continue until the last name is read. Pause. After pausing, then close in prayer with these words.

O Light of Christ,
we have witnessed
lives well lived and lives cut too short.
We are left below this great 
cloud of witnesses
to continue the struggle
for justice and love
in this world. Still, we lament
that we've lost these partners. 
May their memories be a blessing
and a light to our labor. Amen.

Though I would be more inclined to recruit the talents within the congregation to sing We Grieve the Many Thousands by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette (O Sacred Head, Now Wounded) or We Grieve 200,000 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette (O Sacred Head, Now Wounded), I provide the above video as another option. It is covered by the CCLI license as shown here.

Sharing the Feast of God with All the Saints

As much as possible, and assuming that the presider has also spoken the earlier liturgy, keep the Christ candle and tealights in view as communion is shared with the great cloud of witnesses. Bring the loaf and cup alongside. As you share the story of that Last Supper, do not hesitate to make elaborate gestures of the bread breaking and the wine being poured. These things tell the story beyond words.

Invitation to the Feast

More than even the flickering lights,
we feel the waves of grief rise
as we gather around this table
to do what we have always done:
remember, share and bless.

To remember the goodness of God
as we shake the crumbs off 
familiar paraments faithfully mended
over the generations. We remember
who was once here with us.
We feel their absence.

To share in the mystery 
of sacred story that reaches
across lifetimes and generations
to be broken and poured out
with new meaning again.

To bless the grief
that tastes as salty as the bread
and bitter as the wine 
puckering our lips. 
We gather here 
with all the saints
to remember
to share and 
to bless.
Prayer of Blessing

Ancient Spirit, rise
from sacred story
to everyday truth
so that we can find you
again in these ordinary
elements on our shared table.
Even when we are not in one place,
may we find in this bread your wholeness.
May we find in this cup your joy.
Fill our humble bellies with your wonder
as you bless this bread and cup.
Bless our hearts with fullness. Amen.
Prayer after Communion

Holy Three in One, thank you for this feast.
We have remembered who’s we are and who we love.
We have blessed our grief and tasted goodness
so let us go now to be light and salt for this world. Amen.

Blessing

I would let music be the blessing for this time of lament. Allow the candles to keep burning as the Light of Christ and all the saints go with us into the days ahead. I offer two options. I prefer the above song. You can find CCLI license information here. You could instead choose God Will See Us Through which has options for a video download or sheet music for the talent in your congregation.

As always in these pandemic prayers, you are welcome to use part of this liturgy or all of it. I am not asking you to bend over backwards to offer me credit. I am instead offering this as a gift because you are doing so much and I’m praying for you and the ministry you are doing with such love.

Naming the Dead

On Friday, I attended a conversation hosted by the BTS Center called It’s Okay to Grieve. Allen Ewing-Merrill, the new Executive Director of this organization, is also a friend, He and his wife and sweet girls arrived in Maine while I was pastoring there to plant a new church within an old downtown congregation. I’ve said it before. My colleagues are doing the most amazing ministry with such care, compassion and creativity. I am in awe and I was excited to listen in on a conversation particularly for clergy.

Later that day, I watched the press conference that Andrew Cuomo hosted earlier that day. It’s the same one where he bashes the president. I might have watched it for that reason. Maybe.

I was struck by the slide with the death tally. The total deaths reached as high as 15,683 but it wasn’t the total that appeared on this slide. Instead, it was dates and numbers.

April 13: 778

April 14: 752

April 15: 606

The number of lives lost on these days and the three days that followed. I found a still here. Though the dates were, the death tally wasn’t cumulative. I found this confusing. Or maybe I was just tired because I was watching it way past my bedtime, but I expected the number to go up to reach that overwhelming statistic that has probably increased not only in New York state but in many other places around the world. 

It hit me then that those people had names. It should be obvious just as each and every one of those nursing home and hospitals have a name. They have boards making hard choices about how to manage care. They have doctors, nurses, cafeteria workers and janitorial staff that are all essential workers. Every single one of them has a name that was given to them on the day of their birth. A name that originated from their father’s lineage or sprouted from the wonder-filled bliss of two new parents. We shall call this child beloved.

Names are important especially for people of faith. We recall with wonder and confusion that Adam and Eve were given the daunting task of naming God’s creations. It was one of the many ways that they partnered with God to care for these new precious beings.

I felt the rush of sorrow for each and every one of those beloved children.

All 15,683 in New York.

All 23,660 in Italy.

All 4,632 in China.

All 339 in King County surrounding Seattle.

All 743 in Westchester County where my parents still live.

All 477 in Texas.

I remembered in seminary when we had committed to praying over the names of those that died in the war in Afghanistan. I remember when that number reached so high it seemed impossible that we had lost so many young lives as much as I remember the knot in my stomach that the only names we had were for the American soldiers who had died. There had been other lives lost — women, children, innocent bystanders, and even enemy soldiers — but we didn’t know their names. We didn’t pray for them.

There is power in who we choose to name in our prayers just as there continues to matter that we remember Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson, Mya Hall, Walter Scott and Sandra Bland. It matters that we say their names as much as it matters that we remember their stories. In the midst of this pandemic, when families aren’t able to gather and memorialize the dead, there are too many dying alone. It feels all the more important that we remember their names and their stories.

I had seen this video on Twitter of someone flipping through the pages of the obituary section in the Italian paper before any of this really felt real. I feel the enormity of that loss. There are so many but each of those names has a story. Each of those names deserves to be honored and cherished. A colleague of mine exclaimed earlier this week that worship shouldn’t feel like a funeral right now. We are already feeling that weight. Worship needs to offer something else, she insisted, perhaps because it was Easter just the week before. I’m not so sure. I wonder if our worship shouldn’t reflect our collective loss right now.

I wonder if there shouldn’t be a time when we pause to name the dead.

There are lists that record the celebrities who have died of COVID-19. In fact, I found several lists of famous people. There’s a list of healthcare workers that have died. It is a HIPAA violation to share those names. I know. I’ve spent enough time in hospitals in my ministry but I still wonder how we name the dead.

And I wonder if it can really wait with all the grief we are already carrying.