All Saints Day is on November 1st, although many Protestant churches celebrate it on the Sunday afterward. Our church celebrates it the Sunday before. It is a new addition to our worship schedule, and a good one. It is a great ministry opportunity to deal with death.
The origin of All Saints Day is shrouded in some mystery, as are most of the days we recognize in the church year. We see traces of early recognitions and celebrations, which over time merge together and become more prominent and widespread, until it becomes what we know today.
The earliest mention of such a day is in a hymn written by Ephrem of Syria in 359 A.D. It speaks of a commemoration of all martyrs at Edessa on May 13 of that year. Chrysostom marked such a commemoration in Antioch on the first Sunday after Pentecost. (1)
In 609 Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon in Rome, a first century temple dedicated to all the gods, as a basilica honoring Mary and all the martryrs on May 13. (2)
The shift to November 1 is often attributed to Pope Gregory III, (d. 741), who dedicated a Vatican chapel to all the saints on that date (2)
According to John of Beleth (d. 1165) Pope Gregory IV moved it to November 1 in 835 over concerns about crowd control in the Spring and this is the pope who managed to promote the observation throughout the whole Church. Pope Gregory VII decisively ended the prior May date for the celebration and by the 12th century that date is no longer even mentioned in the liturgical guides. November 1st it is! (1)
Another possible origin often mentioned by historians is an ancient Irish New Year’s celebration held on November 1. In this case, the Church, as it did in several other instances, replaced a pagan holiday with a Christian one to dampen pagan practices and allow an outlet for Christians from those cultures. (3)
An Opportunity to Speak the Unspoken
We began observing All Saints Day at our church a few years ago, after an exploration into our own church’s history that led to the realization that we tend to push negative things, including death, out of our awareness. I spent a summer reading through all our historical records and I discovered several difficult times in our past. The curious thing was that even though I had been at the church for almost 10 years at the time I never heard anyone talk about these tough times. I asked a few of our longer-tenured members and they knew about them. They just weren’t talked about. Added to this was my realization that no one who had become a part of the church since I had become the pastor was aware that the previous pastor had been diagnosed with advanced cancer within his first year at the church, had to go out on disability shortly afterward, and then died the same year I arrived. A major church trauma that no one ever talked about! This all matched my separate observation that we seemed to never talk about people in the church after they died.
All Saints Day is a chance for us to recognize death, to recognize our loss of people dear to us. At our church we light a candle for every member who died since the last All Saints Day, and we pass around a clipboard on which people write the names of people significant to them who died in the last year. We read out those names during the service. We also give a single red rose to the family of any member listed who may be there in worship that day. This is a practical, prominent way to recognize our loss and to bring it to the Lord in prayer and worship.
This also becomes a helpful pastoral tool since I now have a list of everyone who lost someone significant to them over the last year.
The Special Days in the Church calendar, although maybe of uncertain origin, and maybe not always theologically kosher (to mix my metaphors), are there for a reason. They answer some impulse in the worshiper that needs expression in some way. All Saints Day recognizes the need to honor one’s ancestors (this day is quite popular in Africa where ancestor worship is a regular practice) and to recognize as a community the reality of death, and the even greater reality of our hope in Jesus Christ. It’s a good day, and a great opportunity for ministry!
(1) C. Smith, The New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 1. McGraw-Hill: New York, 1967, p. 318
(2) Keith F. Pecklers, S.J., The Cambridge Dictionary of Christianity, ed. Daniel Patte, Cambridge Univ. Press: Cambridge, 2010, p.24
(3) Georg Langgartner, The Encyclopedia of Christianity, vol. 1, Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1999, p.41