by David H. Petersen
All Saints Day has become an increasingly popular observance in the Missouri Synod. In our circles it is not a day to remember martyrs and heroes of the faith, since they already have their special days. Rather, it is a day to remember instead all of those who have passed on with the sign of faith whose lives and deaths were mostly ordinary, but who are nonetheless important to us. In my congregation, people bring Kleenex. They expect to cry. Their expectations seem always to be met.
The hymns we sing on that day always get to people. Who could not be moved by the soaring music and profound texts of “For All the Saints” (Lutheran Service Book 677), “Behold a Host” (LSB 676) and “Lord, Thee I Love With All My Heart” (LSB 708)?
Those great hymns do more, though, than lift our spirits. They boldly confess the reason for the hope that is in us (1 Pet. 3:15): the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, delivered to His people in Word and Sacrament for the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. The people in the pews do not cry simply because they miss their loved ones. They cry also for joy that they will see them again, that they are already united to them in Christ and that what He has done for them He will do also for those who now grieve for them.
It is the custom at my congregation to observe a Totenfest on All Saints Day. A Totenfest (“celebration of the dead”) is a German Church tradition of remembering those who have died in the faith. This has been done in different ways and at different times by Lutherans over the years. We do it at All Saints. The way we observe it is by inserting the following prayer at the end of the prayer of the Church. (I originally found this, years ago, in a Missouri Synod resource entitled “Proclaim” that I no longer have.)
As the conclusion of the prayer the pastor says to the people: “I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth.’ ‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.’” Let us remember with thanksgiving those who have gone before us with the sign of faith, for they were redeemed by God. He gave them new life through His Son in Holy Baptism. He nourished them in the company of His people at His holy table. In His mercy and wisdom, He summoned them to His nearer presence so that they may rest in His blissful peace forever.
The names of those who received the ministry of this congregation during their last days and received a Christian burial in the past year are read and the bell tolled. There will be a pause for all to name in their hearts their loved ones who have fallen asleep in Jesus. Then the bell will be tolled three more times. The prayer below will then be prayed by the pastor.
In joyful expectation of the resurrection to life, we remember before You, O Lord, all our departed kin and friends who have gone before us in the faith. We offer thanksgiving for the gift of faith and hold fast to the certainty of Your promises. We implore You, remember Your Church throughout the world; make all its members grow in love for You and for one another. As You have received our brothers and sisters who have gone to their rest in the hope of the resurrection to eternal life, bring us at the last with them into the light of Your presence, that in union with all Your saints we may give You glory forever, through Your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
There is more weeping at All Saints at our church than almost any other time of year, and yet the festival is dearly loved. The prayer above, the names, and the ringing of the bell, along with the hymns, are powerful and appropriate. So also weeping is appropriate. The Church Triumphant certainly contains many great and famous men and women who lived extraordinary lives and died with honor rather than deny Christ, but the Church Triumphant is also filled with quiet saints, some even known, loved and missed by us. Simply because they are not noticed much here does not mean that they are not noticed much in heaven or that we should go along with the crowd that does not know them. The fact that they matter to us, that there are specific persons in that number that we remember and are eager to see again, also matters to God. Thus we rejoice that, while we weep, every tear has been removed from their eyes. And we weep in joy as well that soon the tears will also be removed from our eyes.
The Rev. David H. Petersen is the pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Ft. Wayne, Ind.