It could be any Sunday at Lake Park Lutheran Church, Milwaukee. You find your seat in the pew and greet your neighbors. Yet something about today feels different. A bit heavier. Due more respect. There’s no prelude this morning. Only silence.
A bell sounds. From the back of the sanctuary a soft chant begins: Veni Sancte Spiritus. Come, Holy Spirit, come.
The chant feels like a long, deep exhale. The sound moves forward. The chanting of one is joined by others now. There’s no longer silence but voices joined as one body in Christ.
Today is All Saints Sunday.
Every year on this day, I have to be careful not to burn myself or set the church on fire.
Early in my call I talked with a member about carving a large wooden cross to fill with sand and candles. We set it up in front of the altar and, with its size, there were only a few precious inches left free for walking or passing—a few inches left to carefully hold my alb to avoid the flames.
The first year we used the cross, we prayed and invited the assembly to come forward individually to light candles in memory of loved ones. One by one people came forward to light a candle. One by one we remembered the saints. Then came communion. Surrounded by the light, at the table, it felt as if we were communing with our loved ones. I gave the bread: the body of Christ, given for you. I saw the flames out of the corner of my eye.
Every year, without fail, someone says, “Don’t you think we ought to move the cross to keep the flames away during communion? Someone is going to catch their alb on fire.”
When I’d hear about the flames, I’d listen, but the next year I’d place the cross in front of the altar again. For me, that’s the heart of All Saints Sunday after all—the awareness that our passed loved ones are still so close to us. They gather with us forming the great communion of saints. They surround us in the mystery of bread and wine, life and death. United by Christ’s body and blood at the table, the flames around us pointed to that truth. Our loved ones remain with us, a burning light, a spark of love—from here to eternity.
The service now concludes at Lake Park from the same spot in the sanctuary where the chanting had earlier broken the silence. This time there’s not one voice, but many. There’s not a single bell, but a tuba. The congregation sings “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The choirs of angels sing along. The promise that we are not alone burns strong.