The Feast of All Saints

The Podcast

Matthew 5:1-12

So… what do y’all know about the Feast of All Saints?

Well… it comes around on November 1st every year. Right! What else? Umm… I remember we always used to have Baptisms on All Saints! Right again! Folks on the Altar Guild will tell you that on All Saints, they have to flip everything from green to white for a week and then back to green again… patient souls that they are. Others of you may have a tradition of setting aside some time on All Saints (which always falls on the day after Halloween) to say a special prayer for the souls of the departed. And that’s a good tradition. But, what else can you tell me about the Feast of All Saints? What is its significance? Why observe it?

I’m glad you asked.

“All Saints’ Day celebrates all the saints of God—those whose names we remember and those whose names we do not know—whose lives have given witness, great or small, to the resurrection of Jesus.”[1] The day has been observed, in one form or another since (at least) the sixth century AD. It was originally celebrated in the Spring of the year, after Pentecost, and especially commemorated the lives of martyrs who had lost their lives for the cause of Christ. Within a couple of hundred years, however, the date had shifted to November 1st and the focus of the feast had shifted from all martyrs to all saints. Although the Eastern Orthodox Church still celebrates All Saints’ on the Sunday after Pentecost, the Western Church keeps the Feast on November 1st.  

The Feast of All Saints is big deal. It’s one of the seven principal feasts celebrated by churches within the Anglican Communion… right up there with Christmas and Easter and Pentecost. Very often, however, the Feast Day falls on a weekday. “In the prayer book, the Feast of All Saints is to be kept on November 1st. Period. There is no provision for the feast not to be kept on that day… or for it to be moved to the following Sunday. What the prayer book does provide for is the celebration of All Saints on the Sunday after November 1st in addition to its observance on the fixed date (15).”[2] Why do you suppose that is? Why not just move it ahead to the following Sunday and be done with it? Celebrating a principal feast is a lot of work, after all. Just ask the Altar Guild. But here’s the thing, according to J. Neil Alexander, the Ninth Bishop of Atlanta and author of Celebrating Liturgical Time: Days, Weeks and Seasons:

“[Getting into the habit of] always transferring All Saints and other major feasts to the following Sunday… [he observes] routinizes the keeping of the feast and diminishes its place as a festal interruption into the normal course of the passage of [ordinary] time. Even if one understands the Sunday after All Saints to be a particularly “special” sort of Sunday . . . it is nonetheless a Sunday that takes place in the relentless rhythm of the week. What is lost is the interruption of that rhythm by the insertion of the great feast on one of the preceding weekdays, the feast thus becoming another occasion to accentuate the church’s story by asking yet again, why is this day different from all others?[3]

So… keeping the Feast on its appointed day is a big deal. This year, November 1st is on a Sunday… today! But even when it’s on a weekday, I’m in the habit of calling St. James’ Church to worship in the evening, after the workday is over, to celebrate Eucharist and share a little bit of Christian fellowship in honor of saints and martyrs who have gone before us. Weeknight services are beautiful and dark and intimate. It makes me think of what it must have been like to be a Christ follower meeting in the catacombs of Rome back in the second century AD. Next year, All Saints is on a Monday, so mark your calendars for that evening.

On the Feast of All Saints, during the prayers, participants are invited to speak aloud the names of those they love, but who they will not see again… not on this side of life, at any rate. Why do we do that? Why on this day? So, here’s a little more history: Back in the middle ages, the Feast of All Saints was understood as a celebration of the saints and martyrs of the church of ages past who were spending eternity in the more immediate presence of God. In other words, they’d died and gone to heaven. And it was also at about this time that the Doctrine of Purgatory was introduced by the Roman Catholic Church to accommodate those souls who had, perhaps, lived somewhat less-exemplary lives. Now, I’m not talking about real bad eggs like Attila the Hun or Vlad the Impaler, there was really no hope for them… they were going down… literally. I’m talking about folks like… well… us. Folks who went about their daily lives working… raising families… doing the best they could… but who could sometimes be a little too proud… or jealous or envious… folks who sometimes let their anger get the best of them… or who just couldn’t always bring themselves to gird their loins and do the things they needed to do. Maybe they were a little bit greedy… or ate or drank too much on occasion… or overindulged their fantasies and passions. Yup… you guessed right: it’s those pesky seven deadly sins! But never fear… some time in Purgatory might be just the thing for these lost sheep. It certainly wasn’t a place you wanted to spend eternity… Purgatory was a place of pain and punishment… where you would be purged of your sins. But it was still better than that other place… you know the one I’m talking about: a place way out in the “outer darkness where there’s much weeping and gnashing of teeth” (cf. Matt 22:13).

Purgatory wasn’t that place… and there was always the chance that folks in Purgatory could still work their way up the ladder into heaven, if they played their cards right. And, of course, the Church was there to help. All you needed was money in the form of “indulgences” paid to a clergy person with a willing ear… and a grasping hand. And it was at the stipendiary mass (meaning a mass you paid for) on All Souls’ Day, which is the day after All Saints’, that you hoped to be able to spring your dearly departed family members and loved ones from the agonies of Purgatory… and into the more immediate presence of God and the saints. Pretty slick business plan, huh? And it worked… for centuries! Everything was going so well for the medieval Church: attendance was booming… profits were soaring… until the Protestant Reformation happened in the mid-sixteenth century. We can talk more about that in Sunday School if you want. For our purposes today, however, let’s just say that this whole “pay to play” scheme of indulgences and stipendiary masses promulgated by the Roman Catholic Church was one of the major catalysts propelling Martin Luther and other reform- minded Protestants to schism.

Not surprisingly, Anglicans, and other non-Roman Catholics and all of the other Protestant traditions rejected All Souls’ Day as incompatible with their doctrine of salvation. Bp. Alexander observes: 

“The suppression of [All Souls’] day . . . had more to do with [Protestant] discomfort with the concept of purgatory and the practice of indulgences… than with the more pastoral concern of praying for the dead and holding their life and witness in remembrance before God. As a result, in most non-Roman catholic traditions, the prayers in memory of those who have died were moved to the Feast of All Saints. This also aligned more comfortably with the Reformation understanding that all the baptized—all those who had been set apart by water and the Holy Spirit—were, according to the New Testament, saints.”[4]

Of course, this notion jangled (and perhaps continues to jangle) in the minds of some: how are we to properly commemorate and celebrate the biblical and historical saints in the life of the church when we ourselves are also the supposed inheritors of such a legacy? Sounds pretty cheeky… even self-serving… doesn’t it? But it’s not that hard of a concept to grasp… not if you really believe that you are saved by grace and washed clean by the Blood of the Lamb. One day, you will become part of that great cloud of witnesses, saints of old and saints yet unborn, standing before the throne of God in heaven saying, “Amen!” (Revelation 7:11-12) I don’t know about you, but this understanding of what it means to be a “saint” gives me a whole new outlook on Jesus’ imperative that we love one another (John 13:34)… and refrain from judging each other (Matt 7:1). We are all called to same table… the same feast. All is prepared. It’s up to us to show up… in good faith… and greet one another in the name of Christ.

Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz once famously said, “War is the continuation of politics… by other means.” I wonder if the same might be said about death… and redemption. How many of you have known someone who’s life on Earth was such hot mess that it was hard to imagine them in the Paradise of God? I’m reminded a woman named Lynn, whose death I attended a number of years ago. She’d been placed into an induced coma as a last-ditch effort to save her life… to give her body a chance to regain its equilibrium after it had finally crashed due to decades of alcohol and drug abuse. There was nothing the doctors could do. And she was only in her mid-forties. That it had finally come to this was no surprise to folks who knew Lynn… only the sudden onset of the endgame. She’d been in a downward spiral for years and had seemed intent on alienating and doing as much damage to the people who loved her as she possibly could on the way down. Lynn had caused enormous hurt to a lot of the people who were now standing around her bed in the ICU, awaiting her passing. And yet, they loved her and continued to wait and watch and weep… wondering what they might have done differently to help Lynn overcome her demons… and also about the state of her soul after she breathed her last. These were good, intelligent, faithful people—believers—and yet the enormity of the moment was overwhelming. Lynn was such a mess… there’s no way she could be “fit for heaven.” And of course, she wasn’t. None of us is, or ever will be. Not in this life. Not on our own. We are saved by grace alone, unearned and undeserved, purged of our sins, not through anything we could ever be or do or say, but through our Savior Jesus Christ who once famously said, “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day” (John 6:39 NIV). Where does the Doctrine of Purgatory fit into that? In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus tells us how we can be happy and blessed… and put ourselves on the path to redemption in this life. Some manage better at this than others.  But I wonder… to paraphrase Clausewitz, can temporal death be the continuation of redemption… by other means? Jesus will stop at nothing to bring that last, lost sheep home… to bring us all home (Luke 15:3-7). I remember standing over Lynn, watching her body wind down, and I suddenly knew that she was in the process of being redeemed… transformed… inexplicably changed from glory into glory (cf. 2 Cor 3:18)… into a saint. All of her impurities were being burned away. I didn’t understand how it all worked, and I still don’t, but I saw it and felt it happening in that moment. What a gift… for Lynn and for me. When you say your prayers this evening, I invite you to reflect on some of the souls, now departed, who have had an impact on your life. Perhaps they were dear to you… or perhaps disappointment, hurt and anger got in the way of your relationship. You may say their names aloud or in silence. And make no mistake… God and the saints will be listening.  

[1] Alexander, J. Neil.  Celebrating Liturgical Time: Days, Weeks and Seasons (New York: Church Publishing, Inc., 2014), 25.

[2] Ibid 26.

[3] Ibid 26-7.

[4] Ibid 28.

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