All Saints' Day
A brief history
Today is All Saints’ Day, the much less famous holiday to the more popular Halloween, yet it’s the most important of the two days. If you’re a Catholic it is likely that you’ll attend mass today, if you’re Protestant, you’ll probably honor the day on Sunday the 5th. The official inception of this holy day was in 609 AD by Pope Boniface IV who had originally dedicated the 13th of May to the consecration of the Pantheon at Rome to the Virgin Mary and all the martyrs of the church. However, by the eighth century, Pope Gregory III had moved the date to November 1st. In all likelihood, he made the move to coincide with the with Celtic festival of Samhain, which was also celebrated this time of year. In 835 Louis the Pious decreed All Saints’ Day to be a Holy Day of Obligation, a practice which continued by devout Catholics to this day.
Originally All Saints’ Day was meant to honor all the martyrs of the church, but over time it expanded include the saints as well. The day was traditionally celebrated in the middle of a three day feast which marked All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day. All Saints’ Day was to commemorate the martyrs of the church, while All Souls’ Day is set aside to pray for the purification of the dead in purgatory that they may ascend to heaven. All Souls' Day continues to be celebrated on November 2nd by Catholics.
Catholics celebrate the communion of saints, who through the blood of Christ and their own good deeds have earned them a place in heaven.
As mentioned above, Catholics view All Saints’ Day as a Holy Day of Obligation, and unless they are ill, they’re expected to attend mass. Catholics celebrate the communion of saints, who through the blood of Christ and their own good deeds have earned them a place in heaven. In the Catholic tradition, most saints have a feast day, but it’s not always observed. Catholics also recognize that there are some saints known only to God. All Saints’ Day is a chance for Catholics to cover those bases and celebrate all the saints; both known and unknown, and with or without their own feast day. Priests will read the Beatitudes from Christ’s famous Sermon on the Mount, and many Catholics will spend a little extra time after mass to thank God for all the unnamed saints.
Martin Luther, who nailed the 95 Thesis to the door of the church in Wittenberg in 1517 and accidentally set the Protestant reformation in motion, believed that Christians should honor, but not worship, the saints.
After the Reformation (which celebrated its 500th anniversary yesterday), most Protestant denominations retained the tradition of this holy day. However, since Protestants don’t believe in purgatory, they no longer have a need for All Souls’ Day. Martin Luther, who nailed the 95 Thesis to the door of the church in Wittenberg in 1517 and accidentally set the Protestant reformation in motion, believed that Christians should honor, but not worship, the saints. The Lutherans regard All Saints’ Day as an important festival in which we can be enlightened by the heroes of the Bible. It’s a time to remember the holy Christians from ancient times as well as the more recent saints who may have departed. The holiday is a good reminder to all Christians that we all can be made saints in the eyes of God by the redeeming blood of Christ.
Luther’s observations were shared by John Wesley, theologian and Anglican cleric, and founder of the Methodist church. In 1767 Wesley wrote in his journal that this was “a festival I truly love.” He enjoyed both the celebration and giving thanks to God for the lives and deaths of all the saints. The whole body of the church, both living and dead, are celebrated on All Saints’ Day. Because of what Paul wrote in Hebrews 12 that “…we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” Methodists do have regard for saints, but they believe that only Christ can be the mediator between God and Man. Methodists believe in saints as people who have lived exemplary Christian lives, but they have no system of naming saints as the Catholics do. For the Methodist, a saint can be any righteous Christian, living or dead. November 1st is a day to give thanks for their work, although, as with the Lutherans, the day is usually celebrated with a special service on the first Sunday of November, regardless of what calendar day it falls on. Methodists and Lutherans both make it a point in the All Saints’ service to honor the memory of church members who have died in the past year. Many Christians who recognize All Saints’ Day, regardless of denomination, will leave candles or flowers on the graves of deceased relatives.
Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, and a few of the other evangelical denominations usually don’t celebrate All Saints' Day. Although the trend within those churches seems to be turning more and more towards an observance of the holy day. As mainline Protestants are beginning to separate the celebration from its Catholic roots, more are willing to see All Saints’ Day as a day to celebrate the triumph of Christ over death. They’re beginning to see the value of a day set aside to honor all the saints who were redeemed in Christ. However, while many Protestants are beginning to celebrate this as a day of observance, many more still do not recognize it as an official church sponsored holiday.
Whether your tradition recognizes today as a day of remembrance and thanks to all the saints, both living and dead, or if it’s just a day to buy discounted Halloween candy, I hope that you will all pause for a moment to thank God for his redeeming grace.
We bless your holy name, O God, for all your servants who, having finished their course, now rest from their labors. Give us grace to follow their example of their steadfastness and faithfulness, to your honor and glory; through Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
Methodists do regard saints, but they believe that only Christ can be the mediator between God and Man. Methodists believe in saints as people who have lived exemplary Christian lives, but they have no system of naming saints as the Catholics do.
© 2017 Anna Watson