In our Christian tradition, we celebrate All Saints Sunday once a year, speaking aloud the names of people who have died in the past year—and in this congregation also naming those who have been baptized in the past year—and taking a few moments to name the saints we’ve known personally throughout our lives.
It’s a holy remembrance of our ancestors, a sacred way to give voice to our grieving, and a confession of faith in the God of eternity. Though some people avoid attending worship on All Saints Sunday because they feel too sad when they are reminded of someone they love who has died, the community carries the grief together, sharing names and support.
What I didn’t realize until last Friday was that Jewish communities take time during worship every week to remember their loved ones who have died and to speak their names aloud, the rabbi responding after each name, “May their memory be a blessing.”
A group of us confirmation students and teachers from here at Gethsemane Lutheran Church, as well as Christ Lutheran Church in Webster Groves, all gathered for Kabbalat Shabbat last Friday at Central Reform Congregation, the only Jewish congregation in the city of St. Louis. As we arrived, we were warmly greeted by the security guard at the door, a reminder that safety is a necessary concern for Jewish communities even here in our city.
Another helpful congregant welcomed us inside and oriented us to the space, pointing out features of the large, colorful, round mural painted on the tiles of the floor, which illustrate ways of marking time, as through signs of the zodiac, as well as seasons of the Jewish calendar year.
The mural gave us a perfect opportunity to quiz the confirmands—what are these twelve names written around the circle? The sons of Jacob who became the twelve tribes of Israel. Why would there be a picture of a frog next to drops of blood next to a cricket…? Those refer to the plagues of Egypt as Moses demanded freedom for the Israelites. What’s this plate with food items? These illustrate the elements of the seder meal served at Passover.
Jews and Christians, of course, read from the same Hebrew Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament, our Scriptural foundation. There in the entryway, we established common ground.
Rabbi Susan Talve (T-AL-vee) began the time of worship by naming our churches and welcoming us publicly, pointing out that we are practicing peace by showing up for each other. Then throughout the worship time, she translated the Hebrew words we’d find unfamiliar, named which page we were reading from in the siddur, their book for daily prayer, and made purposeful reference to those places in the worship we would find familiar. In particular, the service closes with the mourner’s kaddish.
She asked mourners to stand and speak aloud the names of their loved ones who have recently died or to mark the anniversary of a loved one’s death. Rabbi Susan responded to each person named from among the congregation, some of them beloved friends she herself remembered, each time saying, “May her memory be a blessing.” “May his memory be a blessing.”
Another worship leader came forward to read the names of people who have died in Israel in the past week, many names of soldiers with their military rank and their age, and many of them heartbreakingly young. They also gave voice to those who have died in Gaza, so many children, those for whom we don’t have names, as well as some who have died in such violence that their bodies cannot even be identified. This weekend also marks the anniversary of the death of Yitzhak Rabin, Prime Minister of Israel, assassinated in 1995 after devoting himself to the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.
There was no glorifying of war or death or suffering. Rabbi Susan said that in naming and remembering the dead, “we take on the responsibility of making sure they did not die in vain.” She called the mourner’s kaddish a communal act of resistance, a prayer for future peace, a prayer for the dead that does not mention the word “death.” Later on, she told us the Hebrew root of the word kaddish means “holy.”
During worship, she smiled at us Lutheran Christians, joining in the resistance that would wish to separate us on account of our religious faith, and she told us the words of the kaddish might sound familiar to us, a lot like “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”—what Christians know as the Lord’s Prayer. I’ll share a section of the kaddish that was spoken in worship:
Magnified and sanctified
May your great name be
In the world that you created,
As you will,
And may a time of peace come
In our lives and in our days
And in the lives of all the house of Israel,
Swiftly and soon,
And say all amen!
When we are bold enough to share our common humanity and bow our hearts before God, our worship becomes a testimony to God’s power to unite, to bring union, on earth as it is in heaven.
On All Saints Sunday, in our tradition, we bear witness to the thin spaces between life and death, the presence of the saints of all times and places, glorifying God for God’s grace and mercy. And we continue to seek God’s peace on earth as it is in heaven.