Wednesday, November 1, 2017
An All Saints reflection. . .
According to Venerable Bede, the pope intended “that the memory of all the saints might in the future be honored in the place which had formerly been dedicated to the worship not of gods but of demons” (On the Calculation of Time). Interestingly, this event, the rededication of the Pantheon, occurred in May, not in November. Many Eastern Churches still honor all the saints in the spring, following Easter or Pentecost. So how did the Western Church come to celebrate this feast on November 1? It is a puzzle. Alcuin observed the feast of All Saints on November 1 in 800, as did his friend Arno, Bishop of Salzburg. But it would take another century before the church at Rome would join them in adopting this date for this feast.
This feast was not even strictly for All Saints but particularly for martyrs. When Christianity was free from the fear of persecution, sainthood was no longer synonymous with martyrdom. The Church noted those who lived exemplary lives or whose accomplishments became their legacies. In the earliest centuries of Christianity, the addition of a name to the calendar could be as quick and easy as the act of a bishop adding their names to the list. The very first papal canonization occurred in 993. The process used by Rome today, both lengthy and rigorous in proving exemplary sanctity through miracles attributed to the saint, only took form in the past 500 years.
While some would still argue that All Saints is for those who are named as saints but who have no feast day, the way we observe the feast today honors the obscure as well as the famous—the saints all the world has known, the saints each of us have known, and even those saints known only to God. Interestingly, John Wesley, founder of the Methodism, both enjoyed and celebrated All Saints Day. In a journal entry from November 1, 1767, Wesley called it “a festival I truly love.” On the same day in 1788, he wrote, “I always find this a comfortable day.” The following year he called it “a day that I peculiarly love.”
Of course we all know the connection of Luther to All Saints, or at least to its Eve. It was October 31, 1517, that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg. For Luther, sainthood was not about moral achievement than about the declaration of God, the grace of God that redeems the sinner without any merit or worthiness on his part, and our common life together around those means of grace. If there is anything to draw attention to the saints, it is above all about the faithfulness of the saints to the mercies of God. He who endures to the end shall be saved.
On this day in the liturgy, we read the names of the faithful departed within the parish over the past year, each name accompanied by a single toll of a chime, and then we allow silence for the faithful to speak out loud the names of those whom they love who have departed this life in faith and now rest from their labors. It is God's act to make us His own, His sustaining grace to keep us His own, and when we remember the saints, we are remembering that unmerited favor revealed in Christ our Savior.