Lesser Holy Days

By H. Boone Porter

If one looks at most of the Episcopal calendars now commonly in use, including the one in the front of the Proposed Book of Common Prayer, each month one finds about a dozen names in small type or black type, in addition to the few names in large type or printed in red. The large type or red letter days indicated festivals which are supposed to be observed throughout the Episcopal Church. We are referring here to the printing of the names of saints,  not to the indications of the liturgical colors given in some calendars. On these red letter days, at morning or evening prayer, or at a celebration of the Eucharist, the assigned readings for the day are to be used. It is generally understood that at parish churches with a resident priest, the Eucharist should be celebrated on all such red letter days, or else the observance should be held on some other day of the week. The somewhat complicated factors involved in transferring such days within the week are governed by custom or rubric.

Let us consider the so-called lesser feasts, the ones usually printed in smaller type or black letters. We do not, properly speaking, refer to the people so listed as lesser saints, for who are we to judge? St. Augustine of Hippo (August 28th), for instance, has apparently had a greater influence on Christian history than the apostle Bartholomew (August 24). But we do speak of St. Augustine, among many others, as having a “lesser feast,” because the customary liturgical commemoration is less than that traditionally accorded to the apostles. It would be quite impossible to provide equally great commemorations for all the heroes of Christian history.

To judge how many greater and lesser days should occupy our calendar is a difficult decision, and the number of such observances has been increased or decreased from time to time in the course of history. Geographic considerations also influence church calendars. No doubt St. Augustine’s day is regarded as a major feast in North Africa where he lived (This Augustine is not to be confused with Augustine of Canterbury, whom we commemorate on May 26. The latter is, of course, a major festival in Canterbury Cathedral.) Conversely, among Eastern Orthodox Christians, the name of Augustine is not revered at all.

Within the Anglican Communion, the red letter days are almost the same all over the world, but the black letter days vary, to some extent, in our different national churches. The Scottish Book of Common Prayer, for instance, includes many ancient Scottish saints whose names are unknown to American Episcopalians. On the other hand, we have certain names that are historically and devotionally important for the American Church, such as William Augustus Muhlenburg (April 8), John Henry Hobart (September 12) or Samuel Seabury (November 14). Are these latter really “saints”?

The question is not so readily answered. The title saint goes easily with biblical, ancient, or medieval names, but it sounds a bit strange with a modern name such as, say, “Saint Wilbur McCorkle Smith, Jr.” In the course of Christian history, heroes have often been held in honor for centuries before the title saint became formally attributed to them. Let us leave it that way. We can comfortably speak of Dr. Muhlenburg, Bishop Hobart, or Bishop Seabury. Later centuries of history can add other titles if they feel so moved. 

Meanwhile what are we supposed to do with these lesser days? First of all, throughout the Anglican Communion such lesser days are optional. We do not have to do anything with them. We believe it valuable and significant to affirm our spiritual roots and heritage by having them in the calendar, but we are not obliged to have any special public celebrations of them. When they land on a Sunday, their observance is not usually permitted.

For the daily services of Morning and Evening Prayer, they do not have special psalms or lessons assigned to them: if they did, it would totally disrupt the sequence of daily readings. Appropriate opening sentences and collects may be used if desired. In some cases, a particular canticle may also be appropriate. Suitable collects may be found in the 1928 Prayer Book, page 258, and in the Proposed Prayer Book, pages 195-199 and 246-250. In the latter book, a simpler commemoration is made possible in the evening with a short litany which may be used before the collects, pages 68 and 122. Here the name can simply be inserted in the final clause.

For celebrations of the eucharist, optional readings are provided in the volume entitled Lesser Feasts and Fasts, discussed below. Several such propers will be found in the Proposed Prayer Book, pages 925-927. Some parishes prefer to use white or red vestments for the days they observe, others prefer to retain the color of the week. It certainly is not necessary for the Altar Guild to change the frontal, pulpit cloth, and lector bookmarks for every lesser feast. On the other hand, they may wish to do so for certain of these days which are felt to have extra importance. On a number of black letter days, the figure commemorated is associated with some particular topic or theme which may be appropriately expressed in the intercessions at the eucharist or in the concluding prayers of the daily offices. Thus on the day of St. Benedict of Nursia (July 11) we may pray for the Benedictine monks and nuns, or for all monastic communities. On William Wilberforce’s Day (July 30), we may pray for the continuing abolition of slavery in all parts of the world. 

For members of the Episcopal Church, perhaps the most useful observance of these days is to follow the excellent book, Lesser Feasts and Fasts, Revised Edition (1973). Here there is a collect which can be said on each of these days, and in the latter part of the book is a short but informative biographical sketch of each figure. These can be read by individuals or families in their private devotions, and can be read publicly at weekday services. Those following this book through the year will be tremendously profited in their knowledge of the faith and history of the church, and in their personal awareness of the communion of the saints. 

A special case arises in a church named for one of these saints or heroes. The patronal feast is always a major celebration for the church involved. A parish dedicated to St. Benedict will wish to celebrate his feast in the fullest way, and in many cases will wish to do so on the following Sunday. The lectionary for the daily offices provides subtable psalms and lessons, so that a patronal feast can be observed on the preceding evening, and at Morning and Evening Prayer of the day, as well as at celebrations of the Holy Eucharist. 

The Rev. Dr. H. Boone Porter was editor of The Living Church from 1977-1990. This article was first published in our July 3,1977 issue.


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