This week we are taking a slight, darker turn as we pause from our weekly discussions of discipleship to reflect on discipleship as an act of remembering that is All Saints’ Day.
What Is All Saints’ Day?
All Saints’ Day, or All Hallows, is when the church commemorates all saints, known and unknown. The eve of All Saints’ is known as All Hallows Eve, or Halloween. Each year, All Saints’ Day falls on November 1. Much like the American holidays of Veterans Day and Presidents Day, on All Saints’ Day we remember many people, a day set aside in the church to remember all those “saints” of the church who have died. On All Saints ’ Day, we specifically name those individuals we know and love who have died since our last All Saints’ Day celebrations.
Here is some background on All Saints’ that I discovered.
Enjoy. See you in chapel on Wednesday—Halloween—and at our All Saints’ Day service on Thursday, remembering those from our college family who died last year.
Christians have been honoring their saints and martyrs since at least the second century C.E. The Martyrdom of Polycarp, probably written near the middle of the second century, attests to this practice. The ancient book reads:
Accordingly, we afterwards took up his bones, more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more pure than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, so that when being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps (18).
Initially the calendars of saints and martyrs varied from location to location and, often, local churches honored local saints. However, gradually celebration days became universal. The first reference to a general celebration for all the saints occurs in 373 C.E. Early on, John Chrysostom assigned a day for the dead to the first Sunday after Pentecost. The eastern churches still celebrate All Saints’ on that day. In the West, this date was probably originally used, and then the feast was moved to May 13. The current observance of November 1 probably originates from the time of Pope Gregory III and was likely first observed in Germany. Following the Reformation, in most western Christian traditions, the celebration of All Saints’ Day expanded to include commemorations of all who had died in a given year, mirroring the early church practice of attributing sainthood to all Christians in a community.
The vigil of the feast (i.e., the celebration or watch-service on the “eve” before a holiday) has become its own festival. Many customs of Halloween reflect the Christian belief that on the feast’s vigil the church mocks evil because for the church the night serves as a living confession that evil and death have no real, ultimate power over us.
As a result, various customs have developed related to Halloween. For instance, in the Middle Ages, poor people in the community begged for “soul cakes,” and upon receiving these sweet pastries, they would agree to pray for departed souls. This is the root of our modern day “trick-or-treat.” Similarly, the custom of wearing masks and costumes developed to mock evil and to confuse the evil spirits. In addition, on All Hallows Eve, it was customary for Christians to visit cemeteries to commemorate departed relatives and friends with picnics and the last flowers of the year.
Whether All Saints’ is celebrated in the spring or in the autumn or is intended for some or all of the departed, the celebrations of Halloween and All Saints’ reminds us that we live in a world less about darkness than light, less about despair than hope, less about death than life, less about the grave than resurrection. As we celebrate All Saints’ Day this week, remember these words from John’s gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)