Why All Saints’ Day?
A number of objections to the observation of All Saints’ Day might be put forward. With the abundance of feast days already dedicated to particular saints, is a collective feast day really necessary? Given the excesses of prayer to the saints, the devotion to relics, and elevating the saints on a pedestal of super-human holiness that has sometimes attached itself to celebrating the lives of the saints, should we bother with celebrating the saints in the first place? And doesn’t all of this attention on the saints distract our attention from where it ought to be firmly fixed: on Jesus Christ?
The English Reformation sought to genuinely reform the celebration of the saints instead of overthrowing the practice altogether. Thomas Cranmer did not include any prayers to saints when he worked on the Book of Common Prayer. The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion discount prayers to the saints and devotion to relics as unscriptural practices. And yet Cranmer preserved feast days dedicated to the saints in the Book of Common Prayer, including Scripture Lessons and special prayers offered to God in thanksgiving for their lives. Cranmer and the English reformers believed that a healthy, scripturally-grounded celebration of the saints would lead us into greater devotion to God. Let’s look at three ways that a celebration of All Saints’ Day can do so:
A Great Cloud of Witnesses
In Hebrews chapter 11, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews lifts up the many examples of faith that God’s people have exercised throughout the ages. The author of Hebrews then goes on to say, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2a).
For the early Church, this great cloud of witnesses would have been an awesome encouragement in the midst of severe persecution. It should be no surprise to us, then, that a celebration of the martyrs of the Church is mentioned as early as 270AD and a festival of All Saints is mentioned by St. John Chrysostom around the year 400AD. In the midst of intense persecution, the faithful lives of Christians who have gone on before us would be a great encouragement.
We, perhaps, need the example of the saints for the opposite reason. Absent widespread persecution and inundated in a culture of individualism, we need the example of the saints to stir us out of our complacency and to inspire us to live meaningful lives for God. We need to be reminded that we are surrounded by faithful followers of Christ throughout the ages. We need to be reminded that we don’t live isolated lives but that we stand in a great line of faithful followers of God down through the ages. And far from being a distraction, as the author of Hebrews says, this great cloud of witnesses encourages us to look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith. Because they were so radically conformed to the image of Christ, when we look to their lives and their example, they show us Jesus Christ.
A Pattern to Follow
In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul admonishes the young and immature believers in Corinth, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). The Christians in Corinth were having trouble translating what they had learned about Jesus Christ into lives conformed into his image. So Paul humbly lifts up his own life as a picture for them of what it looks like for Christ to transform someone’s life.
If I was to suddenly take up the hobby of fishing, I could do an abundance of reading and research about it in preparation. But doing this would pale in comparison to having a well-seasoned fisherman accompany me and show me the way.
When God moved to fully reveal himself, God didn’t do so through a word spoken far off, or even a word spoken through mere prophets. God spoke to us through his eternal Word in the flesh, Jesus Christ. When Jesus called his disciples, he didn’t dictate a divine manifesto. He called them to follow him.
In the same way, the lives of the saints- both those who have gone on before us and those who live among us- encourage us in their lives to “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” They take us by the hand, so to say, and show us the way.
A Symphonic Testimony
When John is given a vision of the saints in glory, he beholds “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!'” (Rev. 7:9-10). John witnesses a diverse choir united in their worship of God.
If Jesus is the pure Light of the Father, then the lives of the saints act like prisms, refracting that Light and manifesting it forth in a beautiful array of colors. Some saints have served God with their sharp intellect, some with a life of abundant charity, some with the gift of speech, some with lives of great humility. St. Paul teaches that the many gifts of the saints find their source in the same God who empowers them in every saint (1 Cor. 12). On All Saints’ Day, we are invited to step back and behold this symphonic testimony of the saints in every age.
Anglicans are mindful to remember on All Saints’ Day that this includes the many unknown saints as well as the common saints who live in our midst- especially those who were responsible for sharing the faith with us.
All Saints’ Day, then, is a reminder that God’s goodness and truth and beauty are made manifest in a multitude of ways through the lives of saints. And we are invited to allow God’s Light to shine through us in only the ways that he has called us and prepared us to do. And when we allow God to do this work in us, it produces a symphonic testimony to his glory.
A Collect for All Saints’ Day
And so we pray on All Saints’ Day:
Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical Body of your Son: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.