We have arrived again at the season of Allhallowtide, a time to recall in thankfulness the members of Christ’s Church who have died and gone ahead of us to rest in peace until the final resurrection and fulfilment of God’s Kingdom here on Earth.
Traditionally in Mediaeval times, this season began the day before All Hallows (All Saints’) Day, a date we now know as Halloween. What seems today to be an entirely secular and commercial children’s activity had deep roots in festive commemoration of the passing of the dead, of harvest and new beginnings. In the 9th century, when the festival of All Saints’ became fixed on 1st November, the season opened at the evening service of Vespers on 31st October. From the Reformation onward, the season effectively became the two festival days of All Saints’ and All Souls’, with Halloween gradually becoming a secular folk event.
So, what distinguishes the festival of All Saints’ from that of All Souls’, and why should this matter to us?
All Saints’ Day is an opportunity to celebrate all the women and men whose Christian faith and action have borne witness to the grace of God at work in the world. Often those who spring most easily to mind are those distinguished by the epithet ‘Saint’. These include the early disciples, apostles, martyrs and the pioneer evangelists who carried the Christian faith around the world, such as St Patrick and St Columba. Others were scholars and teachers who have shaped the Church in its understanding and application of Christian faith to life, such as Saints Augustine and Ignatius Loyola, or radical, simple servants such as Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa.
But if we focus on just a few familiar Saints’ names, we lose the essence of ALL Saints Day. There are so many Christians who have opened windows to God in the life of the Church and the world whom we don’t label as Saint, like those great preachers and hymn writers the Wesley brothers. And I’m sure none of them, with or without the label, set out thinking, ‘I’m going to be a saint!’ This is our opportunity as the Church today to be encouraged and inspired by Christians of the past, so many of whom faced great opposition in speaking and living out their faith. This dual celebration and encouragement is captured in the collect for All Saints Day:
God of holiness
your glory is proclaimed in every age:
as we rejoice in the faith of your saints,
inspire us to follow their example
with boldness and joy,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
As Christians, we are all members of the same Body of Christ, baptised into the same faith which stretches from those early saints through the present and into the future. As Charles Wesley expressed it:
One family, we dwell in him,
one Church, above, beneath;
though now divided by the stream,
the narrow stream of death. (1)
So, as we remember the body of all saints who are together the Body of Christ, the Church also takes a day to remember the people we have known and loved in our local communities, friendships and families who have enriched our faith and have revealed the life of Christ present in the everyday by their service and life. We pause to name these people, and we may light a candle as prayer for them and as reminder of how they have shone as Christ’s light in our lives. We are thankful for their care of us and we rejoice that they are held safely in God’s house. This day is All Souls’, which the Church of England calls the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed. Together, All Saints’ and All Souls’ days celebrate our shared belonging, past and present, and provide us with hope for the future that we are all waiting and longing for.
As we remember and rejoice in the example of those who have helped to shape us as Church and as individuals of faith, we also remember that our absolute maker and shaper is God, without whose grace we are dust. So, on All Souls’ Day, we also throw ourselves on God’s mercy again, praying in the All Souls’ collect,
Eternal God, our maker and redeemer,
grant us, with all the faithful departed,
the sure benefits of your’ Son’s saving passion and glorious resurrection
that, in the last day,
when you gather up all things in Christ,
we may with them enjoy the fullness of your promises
- Wesley, Charles – Let saints on earth in concert sing
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