All Saints’ Day, traditionally celebrated on November 1st in the West, is one of the seven principal feasts of the Church. It developed in the early Church initially to commemorate the deaths of the holy martyrs. By the Fourth Century, there were frankly too many martyrs to commemorate each one’s death separately, so the idea emerged to have a single major feast to commemorate them all.
We need to take a moment to let that sink in. Three hundred years into this new faith, so many people had given their lives for Christ—not merely in abstract devotion only, but also in actual fact: willingly, literally dying for Christ—that it was not feasible to hold annual memorials for each of them individually. The calendar simply wasn’t big enough.
From our corner of the world, in our time within history, here in this place, it is hard for most of us, myself included, to imagine, much less really to know, what it’s like to be a Christian in a time and place where you can be killed—executed by the state—for being Christian.
I’d wager that many of us in this country and in this culture, when we think about what it might cost us to offer up our lives to Jesus Christ, think mainly of reorganizing our priorities, giving up certain things (maybe), taking on “difficult” goals like being kinder and less selfish in our dealings with other people. And to be honest, I truly hope that you and I won’t have to think about much else other than that.
Because there are places in the world even today where simply gathering to worship Jesus Christ really does mean risking one’s actual life, just as it did in the early days of the Jesus Movement, under the shadow of the Roman Empire.
That is the testimony of the blessed martyrs, the saints whom we remember on this feast day. The word “martyr” comes from the Greek word for “witness,” and in the early Church, it was believed that those who remained faithful to Christ in the face of suffering and death had offered to the world the highest and purest possible witness to the truth of the Gospel.
And that is what we commemorate and celebrate at the Feast of All Saints. If it sounds like a big deal, it is! It hearkens back to the origins of our faith tradition and invokes the very heart of the Gospel. For us here in this parish, moreover, it serves as our “patronal feast.” Since we are not dedicated to a single, particular saint, we wouldn’t normally think of ourselves has having a specific feast day for our “patron,” but since we are in fact dedicated to the entire body of the saints in light, I’d say this is also our feast day!
All Souls’ Day is something a little bit different. The celebration of All Souls, observed on November 2nd in the West, emerged in response to a slightly different but equally important need in the church: the need to remember and celebrate the lives of countless “unknown” baptized Christians in every generation who lived and died in the faith of Jesus Christ.
“Unknown” in the sense of not having become famous as hermits, mystics, or martyrs on a grand scale, but known to each of us as parents, children, extended family, friends, neighbors—all of the children of God whose lives intertwine with ours in the great Communion of Saints. Generations past and generations yet to come, all part of the “great cloud of witnesses” to the Gospel in their ordinary, individual lives.
In many places throughout the various Anglican communions around the world, and especially here in this country, All Souls’ Day is often folded into and blurred together with the observance of All Saints’ Day. The All Saints liturgy will in such cases include a reading out of the names of those in the parish (and those connected to folks in the parish) who have died in the preceding year. It is a good and holy practice, and I understand it is something that has also been a tradition here.
This year being what this year has been (and continues to be), however, I propose to honor All Souls’ Day with its own distinct observance. So on next Monday, November 2nd, at 7 p.m., I will be live-streaming a special worship service from the church in commemoration of All Souls’ Day. At this service, I will lift up the names of those who have died, and the service will be dedicated to honoring them. I believe it is important for us at this time to give greater emphasis to the observance of All Souls’ Day than we could if we simply included it in with our All Saints’ Day celebration, both because of the ongoing onslaught of Coronatide on our mental and spiritual health and also because of the number of parishioners and family members and friends we've lost, both in this season and altogether.
So I hope you will all join me virtually, both this coming Sunday for our patronal feast of All Saints’ Day, and also this coming Monday evening at 7, for a special observance of All Souls’ Day.
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