All Saints & All Souls
November 1 & 2
By Nathan Carr
St. John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople, began his eulogy of the martyred St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, in this way:
Sumptuous and splendid entertainers give frequent and constant entertainments, alike to display their own wealth, and to show goodwill to their acquaintance. So also the grace of the Spirit, affording us proof of his own power, and displaying much good-will towards the friends of God, sets before us successively and constantly the tables of the martyrs.
Using the analogy of the private entertainments available to friends of the rich, Chrysostom reminds us that the Christian Church is not without her own theatre, whose actors are the martyrs: those who have been faithful even unto death, because of him who was faithful beyond death. They play, however, the stage of joy and devotion to God, and we the ticket-holders are rapt to observe this performance — for it is a cross, or an arena, or a human torch. Chrysostom shows a profound difference between the worldly entertainment of the “sumptuous,” and his ironic usage of the Christian “entertainers” who capture the moral imagination of the faithful; for while each martyrdom is different, “The table is one. The wrestlings are varied: The crown is one. The contests are manifold: The prize is the same.”
Chrysostom’s ironic twist is not insensitive to their sufferings, for the joke is on the world. The apparent tragedy is a comedy befitting the kingdom, for they have been hastened to the throne room of God. Our tears are salty with the remembrance that laughter invites us to feast on Earth with the whole company of heaven.
It is to this table — this one table — that we turn our attention each November 1 — the feast of All Saints, and its sister feast of All Souls (Nov. 2). The faithful departed flank our every memory as the living Church. Chrysostom likens each of their lives to that of a garden, in which one might see “many a rosebush and many a violet, and an abundance of lilies, and other spring flowers manifold and varied” and perhaps “doubt what he should look at first, what second, since each of those he saw invites him to bestow his glances on itself.”
Here are thousands from every tribe, tongue, and nation: prophets and presbyters, grandmothers and children untimely lost, maidens and archbishops. The table is one, but those numbered there are as numerous as the blanket of stars that wrap the earth: Abraham himself seated at one end, and his spiritual offspring finding their place cards awaiting as they finish the race. How shall we remember well their examples?
The Church has answered: the Feast of All Saints and All Souls. For all the saints who from their labors rest, we pause, offering twofold thanksgiving. First, we express our gratitude that Jesus made good on his promise in the resurrection: “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.” We have hope that the same will be true for us.
Second, we express our gratitude in earnest devotion to their lives as a well-trodden pathway to God. “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.” It is a gratitude that finds grace in time of need, for feasts are not burdensome formalities any more than funerals are inconvenient hat-tippings done out of a sense of duty. Chrysostom elucidates the gifts of God given in the memorial of the saints:
I beseech you all, if any is in despondency, if in disease, if under insult, if in any other circumstance of this life, if in the depth of sins, let him come hither with faith, and he will lay aside all those things, and will return with much joy, having procured a lighter conscience from the sight alone.
Or for those who come to memorialize in strength:
It is not only necessary that those who are in affliction should come hither, but if any one be in cheerfulness, in glory, in power, in much assurance towards God, let not this man despise the benefit. For coming hither and beholding this saint, he will keep these noble possessions unmoved, persuading his own soul to be moderate by the recollection of this man’s mighty deeds, and not suffering his conscience by the mighty deeds to be lifted up to any self-conceit.
To commemorate the saints is to be confronted afresh with the many promises of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, albeit in a contextual way — for we find them within the context of a single life, so that with them we might be partakers of his heavenly kingdom. Feasts of the saints are the kind of timeless memory that transforms proposition into participation. On July 25, St. James beckons us to obedience without delay, in order to approach the Holy Communion through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. On August 6, our Transfigured Lord bids us behold his beauty, recognizing our present deliverance from this world. On August 24, St. Bartholomew invites our attention to the preaching of the Word, and to receive and preach the same. In and through this round, we are given tastes of splendor that overflow heaven, and a grounding in piety that transcribes all that we believe.
All Saints Day marks the decisive joining together with “earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast / through gates of pearl streams in the countless host / Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” It is, as Chrysostom initially said, “the grace of the Spirit, affording us proof of his own power, and displaying much goodwill towards the friends of God.”