I’ve been on a Harry Potter kick lately and enjoying the descriptions of
the start-of-term feasts in Hogwarts’ Great Hall, candles floating in mid-air,
platters of sausages, Yorkshire pudding, and treacle tarts appearing out of
nowhere, and gold and silver goblets constantly refilled with pumpkin juice.
That’s the first image that comes to mind when I hear the phrase “heavenly
During this week of celebrating All Saints, All Souls, and Richard Hooker,
another image for the heavenly banquet has floated into my mind looks a lot more like the parish picnic we had in the labyrinth a few months ago. There were a lot of people there, saints known and unknown, all having a great time. The heavenly banquet of my imagination is in the heart of the city, with saints coming and going, moving from table to table.
The heavenly banquet, I expect, is a little chaotic. Who’s there? Certainly
our own “Big” Saints-with-a-capital-S. Three of them are written into icons in this very space: St. Paul, St. Michael, and the blessed Mother of our Lord. The fourth I would add to any St. Paul’s party would St. Benedict. Who else is at our heavenly picnic?
• Some people we might not recognize, and some we would. See if you can
find Martin de Porres, a sixteenth-century Peruvian who was initially
denied admission into a monastic order because of his race.
• You might have an easier time finding St. Brigid of Kildare, Hildegard of
Bingen, or Sojourner Truth.
• You might not recognize a woman standing on the edge of the labyrinth
looking suspiciously at an unmarked van in the Met Market parking lot.
This is Josephine Bakhita, a Sudanese woman kidnapped into slavery at
the age of seven in the early 20th century who later became a monastic
and inspired generations who fought the trafficking of women and girls.
• And with a nod to my own Russian heritage, that crazy Byzantine pair,
Sts. Cyril and Methodius. I mostly call them crazy because they invented
the Cyrillic alphabet, and if you’ve ever tried to learn Russian, you know
what I mean. They also converted an enormous population to
• Someone else we might or might not recognize at the heavenly picnic is
James Cone. He’s not yet made it into our canon of Lesser Feasts and
Fasts, but as the preeminent voice for Black theology and Black
liberation spanning swaths of two centuries, you should be able to find
him there in about 24 years or so.
Who are the saints you’ll look for when you get to the heavenly banquet?
How have they shaped and inspired you?
What are these saints talking about? Let’s say that at one of our rickety
old card tables, the Blessed Mother and Benedict are deep in conversation about the Angelus. For Benedict, it is a structure and a sacred marking of the hours of prayer. For Mary, is it the opening scene of God’s turning the world upside down, the triumph of Yes over No. Hildegard initially sat down at that table because she wanted to be part of the conversation, but they’re talking so softly and there is so much noise from the street that she can only catch every other word or so. She makes conversation with James Cone instead. Never fear, she says. We shall awaken from our dullness and rise vigorously toward justice. He says, It can’t happen soon enough. Any theology that is indifferent to the themes of liberation, indifferent to injustice is not Christian theology.
At another table, Sojourner Truth wants to ask St. Paul what the deal is
with him and women’s hair. On the one hand, he’s grateful for the opportunity to explain himself once again, but on the other hand he finds her a little intimidating. He distracts himself watching St. Brigid toy absentmindedly with the hood of her blue cloak. Do you know the story of this cloak? Brigid asks Paul. And she tells him:
When she wanted to build her monastery in Kildare, she asked the king
for land. He refused her. She went back and asked him again for just
enough land for her cloak to cover. He saw her tiny cape, laughed and
said, sure. She stood on a hill overlooking the land she loved, cast out her cloak in front of her, and it covered the land she felt called to serve as far as the eye can see.
I love Brigid because she’s such a schemer and dreamer. And, it’s a
wonderful way of talking about parish ministry. St. Paul approves.
Sojourner Truth, having given up on talking to St. Paul about headcoverings,
finds that she and Michael the Archangel have lots to talk about on
the subject of conquering demons.
Their conversation is interrupted by the entrance of the Martyrs of
Uganda, who in 1885 marched to their death singing hymns of love and prayingfor their enemies, converting a whole nation as they did so. They stand in a circle around the labyrinth and offer a sung grace.
The first person to break into applause after the singing is the host of this
banquet-picnic, Jesus. He wanders around, entering into conversation here,
eavesdropping there. Today he’s got his friend Lazarus close by. Jesus’
unbinding of Lazarus marks the end of his signs of God’s power on earth, butonly the beginning of the real battle over death. Jesus’ call to Lazarus—Lazarus,come out!—is his loud “No” to death and “Yes” to the power of God. The raising of Lazarus is not the transformation of the world which we await and which all the saints await, but it points the way. Lazarus walks out of that cave as a living reminder of the ultimate resistance of death that is the call of all the saints and all of us. Jesus denies death in Lazarus in the same way that we are to deny death in all its forms: wherever we see the death of kindness, or the death of hope, or the death of civility or generosity or justice we can open up that cave and say “Come Out!,” “Unbind her and let her go.”
The heavenly banquet picnic buffet is a victory feast with an edge to it.The feast never ends, and the fight continues, the fight against demons of fear and injustice. St. Michael is the only one who is actually carrying a sword and shield but all of them are fighters. The strife we sang about in our opening hymn is fierce, and the warfare is long. Luckily, hearts are brave and arms are strong—the hearts and arms of all the saints and of all of us who promised at our baptism, and will promise again today, to strive, with the saints, for justice, dignity, peace, service, love, and resistance.
To be a saint is to continue to fight. To resist. This is true of all the saints,
even those we might think of as meek and mild. Apostles, martyrs, monastics, matriarchs, patriarchs, teachers, healers, prophets and pray-ers—they are an army knit together in one communion and fellowship to fight alongside us in the battle against evil and death.
Whether the heavenly banquet is a formal banquet table or a picnic or
this table—most likely, all three—the saints are with us, passing plates of
courage and goblets of love and hope. The strife is fierce and the warfare long—let us pray for the saints, that they might pray for us, that our hearts be brave and our arms be strong.