By Matthew S.C. Olver
This day has often been the source of much confusion. Are we celebrating all Christians who have died? Some parishes read the list of names of departed persons on this day — an All Saints necrology, as it were. The New Testament actually helps in this understanding: St. Paul himself often uses Saint as a synonym for Christian. But the feast of All Saints also rightly conjures images of grandeur, of those
who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and scourging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated—38 of whom the world was not worthy—wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
At the very beginning of his letter to the Romans, St. Paul helpfully bridges the gap between these two meanings: in his rather wordy introduction, he addresses the church in Rome as those “who are called to belong to Jesus Christ …who are called to be saints” (1:6, 7). We are saints because we have “put on Christ.” But we must also remember that fulfilled sanctity is also our goal: that we “may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, [so] that if possible [we] may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:10).
The commemoration of the martyrs is the first celebration to spring up in the development of what we now call the Church’s liturgical calendar. It does so for quite obvious and natural reasons: here is one who has been identified with our Savior in the most palpable way possible: in the putting to death of his flesh. It is no accident that the story of Stephen’s proto-martyrdom is told in such a way as to appear quite similar to the account of our Lord’s Passion. For here is one who runs like sparks through stubble (cf. Wis. 3:7). For what does a spark do when it meets stubble? It bursts into flames, igniting a pneumatic fire, the likes of which the world has never seen. For in Stephen’s very blood, the great Name of Jesus Christ was lifted high above the earth and a mighty seed was planted which could sow nothing but life for this little, nascent religious group tottering on the fringes of empire.
The solemn celebration of All Saints appeared much earlier than the commemoration of All Souls. Today’s solemnity appears to have originated first in the Christian East, where it was celebrated in some places on May 13 (Ephraim speaks of this date) and in other places on the Sunday after Pentecost, where it is still celebrated today (Pentecost in the East is a celebration of the Most Holy Trinity Sunday). The commemoration we know on November 1 arises out of the dedication of the pagan Pantheon to the Blessed Virgin and all the martyrs on May 13, 609, by Pope Boniface IV. Adolf Adams writes: “On this day of consecration the pope had 28 wagonloads of martyrs’ bones brought to the church from the catacombs. The antiphons of the old rite for the dedication of a church may refer to that triumphant act of translation; one of them, for example, reads: ‘Rise up, saints of God, from your dwellings; sanctify this place and bless the people!’”
All Saints’ Day is called a solemnity in the current Catholic liturgical documents; in our prayer book, it is one of the seven so-called “Principal Feasts” (along with Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday; the term is new to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer). The list of solemnities in much longer in the General Roman calendar, but they remain celebrations of the triumph of Christ, even if by extension in the commemoration of the Blessed Virgin, St. Joseph, St. John the Baptist, and Sts. Peter and Paul. All Saints is first a feast of triumph: the triumph of divine love and power in the frames of dust-bound mortal creatures. The feast begins as a celebration first of the triumph of the Martyrs and of the Blessed Virgin, for in them we see distilled most wondrously “the power of an indestructible life” (Heb. 7:16) that has been fused with a creature of earth. All Saints’ Day is a true festival, a shout of victory for the Lamb, who, though slain, stands alive, his victorious standard hung high over all death, all destruction, and all dominions.
All Saints Day is a feast of communion. It exegetes the great exposition of this truth that we find in the later part of 1 Corinthians: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26). And what better way to honor the martyrs and other holy ones than by joining with them in the work toward which their entire lives have stretched? We join with them in the work that is most truly a rest from all other sorts of strivings and labors. The work of worship is the most perfect sort of requiem for which we could long, because it is made possible by grace, because of the One who tasted death but could never be bound by it. To join in offering the Eucharistic sacrifice, which is not just our duty but our joy, is to allow the Son to pray in us the doxology of his life, such that as he ever offers himself in absolute totality to the Father, our meager offering of ourselves and bread and wine, and all that comes down from the Father of lights, is joined to that perfect self-offering. We honor the saints by joining with them in their adoration of Christ.
One of the great 20th-century luminaries, Pope Benedict XVI, wrote, “The Church is not defined by a matter of offices or organization but on the basis of her worship of God: as a community at one around the risen [Lord Jesus].” Thus our commemoration is a way of constituting our very identity. To declare that the community with whom we worship the God of Jesus Christ is primarily invisible is to make an act of faith and hope: that the Spirit of God who made these men and women to share, as we read in Sirach, in the very majesty of God who is Spirit.
Our choice to identify ourselves as worshipers of the God of Anastasia, of Perpetua and Agatha, of Mathias and Ignatius, of Aquinas and Pusey, of Ramsey and the Ugandan Martyrs—such a choice cannot but be the choice of conversion, of metanoia. Our celebration of this union isn’t a stick in the eye toward those heirs of the Reformation who find this all a bit suspicious and overdone. Rather, we pray that by the witness and powerful intercessions of the saints, God will make of us what he made us for: glory. Listen to how the poet Scott Cairns describes beautifully the conversion that can come in the contemplation of the saints:
The heart’s metanoia,
on the other hand, turns
without regret, turns not
so much away, as toward,
as if the slow pilgrim
has been surprised to find
that sin is not so bad
as it is a waste of time.
And when we turn toward that glory, and throw ourselves as his feet, we become that pliable clay which he can begin to remake into something beautiful. C.S. Lewis famously concluded his “Weight of Glory” sermon with the observation that, “next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses,” if you were but able to see him as he will be on the far side of the resurrection. But let us not settle for wistfully anticipating a future glory. See yourself upon the altar, St. Augustine urges us. This offering we make is of ourselves. So offer all the ugliness, all the bitterness, all the anger, all the disgust, all the rank pride and self-deception. Offer that to the living God. And Saints, we pray, God may one day make of us.
The Rev. Dr. Matthew S.C. Olver is executive director of the Living Church Foundation and publisher of The Living Church.