Look at a church calendar (such as this one from the Fellowship of St. James), and you won’t be able to miss one fact: Hardly a day is blank. The calendar teems with names. Some are those of old friends—Peter and Paul, Augustine, Francis. Others fall strangely on our modern ears—Polycarp, Aelred, Theophylactus. These saints’ days are not equal to the Great Feasts. Apart from the days devoted to the Twelve and a few others, they are lesser festivals or, as the Anglican Church helpfully calls them, commemorations.
Honoring the saints began early in Christian history, as in the Roman empire, a holy life and faithful witness usually led to one’s death. Even later, when the concept of martyrdom was enlarged to include many types of witness, the desire to honor and remember a holy life remained. And though a year has 365 days, that’s far too few to honor each saint with his or her own day. The increase in saints to remember, and a desire to honor their witness, led the church to set aside a single day for the saints.
The earliest such celebrations were held just after Pentecost, a fitting reminder that saints are made not by their own power, but by the power of the Holy Spirit. Until the 8th century, churches observed these days on a local—or, at best, a regional—level.
That said, the church’s desire for unity and uniformity led her to remember all the saints, beginning in the 8th century, on November 1. It came to be called the Feast of All Saints (or All Hallows). The night before has become more familiar in the west—All Hallows Eve, or Hallowe’en. No tricks or treats, All Saints provides an annual reminder of a theological truth that ought to be plain in every Sunday service: the “cloud of witnesses” mentioned in Hebrews 12 surrounds us always. When we approach the throne in worship, we join together with that great cloud, becoming the “eucharistic community” that proclaims the Lord’s death (and resurrection) until he comes.
A final distinction is in order before we turn to the celebration of the feast. The church calendar includes both an All Souls Day as well as an All Saints Day. All Souls celebrates the living faithful, while All Saints celebrates the faithful dead, the dead in Christ. All Saints, then, points to the thin veil celebrating the natural and spiritual worlds.
02. I. History and Celebration of the Feast
Christianity is a martyrs’ religion, in both senses of that word. The Greek word at the root of martyr is the Greek word martus, which means “witness.” It is this word that Jesus uses in his Ascension Day commencement address. The disciples, he says, will be Spirit-empowered witnesses.
Before long, the band of followers realizes that their witness will require tremendous sacrifice, in some cases, of their lives. While Peter, John, and the other apostles endured some early warnings and admonitions, their persecution soon became physical. They were imprisoned, then beaten (Acts 5:40). When the deacon Stephen was seized, and ultimately lynched, the real call to and possible price of martyrdom became plain. The detail with which Luke tells Stephen’s story suggests that his example was meant to be remembered and his courage emulated.
The Church father John Chrysostom agreed, seeing martyrdom as a spur to faithfulness. He wrote, “Channels of irrigating water don’t cause the trees to flourish as much the martyrs’ blood arouses [our] souls to bearing fruit, and blood which perpetually blooms causes them to hang heavy with fruit.” In the first five centuries of the church, this regular remembrance of the saints became a more solid reality that emanated from the Mediterranean through the known world.
Pope Boniface IV could have had this in mind when he dedicated Rome’s Pantheon as a church in 609 A.D. On May 13, nearer the post-Pentecost date still recognized in Orthodox tradition, he dedicated the church to the Virgin Mary and all martyrs. Perhaps the memory of martyrdom was a little fresher at the time, for little more than a century later, Pope Gregory III moved the date to November 1 and extended the commemoration to all the saints.
While a wide array of customs have not attended the Feast of All Saints as much as other feasts, remembering the faithful departed is a common thread thanks to the celebration of All Souls on November 2. The day is called Toussaint in France, and the association of chrysanthemums with the holiday dates to the early twentieth century. In many countries, visits to cemeteries to place flowers (and other things) on the graves of loved ones occurs in many countries.
03. II. The Meaning of All Saints
I want to suggest that the date of All Saints is less important than the idea. We need the stories of the saints. Their examples encourage us to be witnesses, as Jesus commanded his disciples to be. They inspire faithfulness in the face of adversity, courage in the face of persecution, and obedience whether it is convenient or not.
Though many of the best-known saints have a day of their own, All Saints reminds us that sainthood—holiness—is every Christian’s calling. It is the fruit of daily discipleship, carried out through countless decisions made in obscurity. In The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard called this faithful practice “the secret of the easy yoke.” Jesus’ 30 years of private holiness prepared the way for three or so years of public ministry. Imitating Jesus, Willard wrote, “is to live as he did all his life.”
Some saints seem to have been transfigured in a moment. Stephen appears in one chapter of Acts and his boldness leads to his martyrdom in the next. Luke’s telling does not include the days of faithful discipleship, but we may assume it. After all, his way of life assured the believers that he was “full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” someone who had been prepared by God for needed. In other words, this ordinary person was transfigured not by a single instance of strength or courage—his selection as a deacon—but by a devoted life. That is the miracle, and the invitation, of sainthood.
04. III. Suggestions for Practice
- Choose a saint who shares your name or birthday, or one for whom you have an affinity, to learn more about. A calendar (sometimes called a synaxarion) like the one mentioned above from the Fellowship of St. James can be a start. Several online options exist as well, such as this index of lesser feasts and commemorations for the Episcopal Church. This Orthodox calendar includes brief lives of the commemorated saints. What details can you glean that show how their private life of faith and holiness that prepared them for God’s work in and through them?
- Consider the unknown saints in your own life—a family member, a father or mother in your church, a friend. Reflect on the ways their faithfulness in obscurity has encouraged and inspired others.