Saints Below and Here – Nick Utphall reflects on God’s presence beyond and within the lives of the saints.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for All Saints Sunday in Year C (2022, 2025)
Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
This week, a typical search through the lectionary for creation imagery may feel like the chase of Ghost in the Graveyard, the game we used to love in my neighborhood as kids, chasing around houses and past obstacles in the dark, not fully seeing and never quite catching the intended target.
The typical pursuit of creation care in biblical texts may involve depictions of topography: “I lift my eyes to the hills” of Psalm 121:1 or Jesus leading followers up a high mountain in Mark 9:2. It could be the vegetation: crocuses blooming in Isaiah 35:1, the grains of Ruth 2, or the cedars of Lebanon in Psalm 104:16. That go-to creation Psalm also points us toward sibling creatures like birds, wild goats, and young lions (104:17-21), incorporating those more distant from our routines, like nocturnal animals and even the fearsome Leviathan (104:20, 26). We may notice the Bible as less anthropocentric when it describes weather patterns, whether those promised to persist in good order after the flood (Genesis 8:22, echoed in the hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship Hymn 733) or when they bring chaos on us, like a storm on the Sea of Galilee (Luke 8:22-25, referenced in the Dakota hymn “Wakantanka taku nitawa / Many and Great, O God,” ELW Hymn 837).
In my copy of The Green Bible (Harper Collins, 2008), verses that are alleged to connect to God’s concerns for creation are printed in green. This “green letter edition” is a take-off on the standard red letter versions where all of Jesus’ words are printed in red. There’s less ambiguity in identifying who spoke which quotation than in determining if something relates to creation care or not, but it is notable that for the lectionary passages today, only three verses are printed in green: Ephesians 1:20-21 and Luke 6:31.
The Ephesians portion reads “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.” Personally, I might have printed the next verses (Ephesians 1:22-23) as the green ones: “And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” To my hearing, that echoes the end of the Christ Hymn in Philippians 2:9-10: “Therefore God also highly exalted [Christ Jesus] and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” In the Christ Hymn, those under the earth likely refer to the dead in a three-tiered cosmology, and we’ll return to some of that later. But I also like to think that those under the earth include earth worms and prairie dogs and all the soil microbes.
The green letter verse from Luke is the Golden Rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” It would be good for us to care for creation in that fashion of mutual relation, and not with dominance over it. But in our typical forms of hunting for environmentally eye-opening Bible verses, that one might not jump out at us.
All that is to return to the original note that if we’re hunting for creation care imagery for All Saints Sunday, it is not very apparent in our lectionary Bible readings. Even when the seas pop up in Daniel, it’s with enemy beasts popping out of the water, envisioning evil violent empire. Not exactly cuddly creatures. It’s a Ghost in the Graveyard chase, going after the notion in the dark and not quite catching it.
Most broadly, the apparent aspect of the lectionary is associated sainthood for this All Saints Sunday with suffering. This has become the predominant notion of martyrdom, applied as a term for those who suffer and perhaps die because of their faith. Martyr is simply the Greek word for witness. But in what has become its stereotypical meaning, it references those who died in Roman gladiator arenas, sacrificed to vicious beasts, perhaps not unlike the kind personified in the bypassed verses of Daniel—lions and bears, fangs and horns. That was only ever a very small number of Christians, and is far separated from many of our realities.
We’d likely confess that most of our Christian lives and witness has been much less excruciating, deadly, or demanding as that. And All Saints has come to mark not the extraordinary faithful people, but so many of the regular saints in our lives. We may observe an increasingly post-Christendom context, but even when our faith leads us to stand somewhat apart from our larger society, the lives of regular saints still likely bear witness in fairly ordinary and everyday ways, rather than in dramatic experiences of confrontation. Indeed, the point of the feast of All Saints has been that “many Christians on this day think of departed brothers and sisters of inspirational faith and life-giving witness whom they trustfully believe are in heaven, among the unknown saints” (Andrew Cameron-Mowat, The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship, Paul Bradshaw ed. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002, p. 5). Most commonly, All Saints Sunday is celebrated in our congregations as a commemoration and celebration particularly of those who have died in the past year.
Even recalling the recent deaths of those who have been dear to us, still it is not extraordinary suffering that ought to characterize the saints. To claim so would be to make this faith about us and our actions, but the focus on the saints is that their lives bear witness to God and to salvation in Christ. Their lives point to the center of faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus, with lives lived in synchronicity with the love of God. Perhaps in the saints—in their living and also in their dying—we have a reminder that “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:39).
And that may further bring us back to the three-tiered cosmology of biblical times. In this ancient pattern, creation was seen as divided into three areas: with the heavens—the home of God—above, the earth where we live, and Sheol below, the place of the dead. This understanding of the ordering of the world and the universe marked God’s place and how we are joined to that. In that design, we can go on to notice and believe something about those who have died: it is not “for this life only” that our faith matters (1 Corinthians 15:19). Even those “under the earth,” those who have died, remain under the authority of Christ. As our second reading says that “all things [are] under his feet” (Ephesians 1:22), that means even death itself cannot prevent us from praising God.
It may not be a leap, then, to perceive this communion of saints still joined together. The Mexican tradition of Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, marks this moment of the year not only with grief and sadness of loss, nor the finality of death, nor even morbid creepiness, but sees it with an ancient Christian understanding of communion, much like our common understanding of communion joining us together around a table. Even if we can’t directly see the departed saints and their presence feels invisible to us, we are never truly separated from each other. Dia de los Muertos (and maybe our own observance of All Saints) serves as a special celebration to understand ourselves reunited and rejoined with those who have died, to commemorate their lives with humorous anecdotes, enjoy tasty treats, and honor community.
Expanding on that, wherever and whenever we find ourselves and others in this cosmology and the fullness of creation, we remain connected to God and to each other. In that way, finding creation care isn’t the blind chase after a Ghost in the Graveyard. Neither is celebrating the saints only about those who have died, just as it was not about those who suffered extraordinary deaths. Sainthood and lives bearing the image of God begin from the moment of our birth, or even before. Our everyday existence—in moments of ease and of suffering, in times of hunger or enjoying the fruits of creation, in our scars and in our healing, in each breath we take and every step on earth’s soil, through any of our particular circumstances—is an aspect of joining together in communion, in and with God’s creation. We remain in the matrix of this cosmology throughout our life and beyond. Perhaps there is room to reflect on this day about God’s presence and promise with us not only at the end, but throughout the moments of our lives and our everyday encounters. That may be celebration enough.
Still more, however, it means that any other thing that claims to control and seems to confine our lives does not have the ultimate place. Our present circumstances are not the indicator of God’s blessing, as Jesus indicates in the Beatitudes. As beastly as they are, empires that may come to threaten and harm—either in tactics of violent warfare or in systems of oppression—do not have higher power than God.
In True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, Mitzi J. Smith writes about our Ephesians reading:
“God’s revelation enables the saints to know ‘the hope of [God’s] calling’ and the ‘riches of [God’s] glorious inheritance in them (v. 18). Significantly, the inheritance comes through Christ whom God raised from the dead. Inheritance, as we know it today, is awarded at the death of the property holder. But Christ is alive and at the right hand of God. And it is because Christ lives that the inheritance is bestowed. The revelation of the mystery also manifests the ‘surpassing greatness of [God’s] power in us who believe’ (v. 19). For African Americans, this has historically meant that a greater power is at work in us than the one at work in the world…For contemporary African Americans, this means that the power of God is greater than the legal and political powers wielded by the authors and supporters of anti-affirmative action initiatives and other political agendas that threaten to erode our civil rights. The efficacy of the unrivaled power residing in God’s saints was the same power put into operation when God raised Christ ‘from the dead and seated [him] at [God’s] right hand in the heavenlies’ (v. 20).” (Mitzi J. Smith, True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, Brian Blount ed. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007, p351-52)
So we glimpse and begin to recognize and trust the order of a universe, an understanding of our world—a cosmology—that all is held together in Christ. We have already received the inheritance of his life. Together we have power to follow the Golden Rule, acting as saints for God’s goodness in our part of creation.
Originally written by Nick Utphall in 2022.