As a historian I am fascinated by how and why things started and even more why they changed. The festivals and ceremonies of the Church are for me one such intriguing subject. Saints` Days are usually celebrated for one saint, or for a pair of saints like Crispin and Crispinian on 25 October whom we all remember from Henry V because the battle of Agincourt was fought on that day.
All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallows’ Day, is a Principal Feast in the Anglican communion, celebrated in honour of all the saints, known and unknown. In Western Christianity, it is celebrated on 1 November. That day is the day before All Souls’ Day, which commemorates the faithful departed. The feast began to be regularly celebrated around AD 600.
The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates All Saints on the first Sunday after Pentecost. Yet other churches celebrate All Saints on the Friday after Easter. These three dates reflect the various origins of the feast and the different theologies behind it.
The early history of the feast of All Saints is disputed. It is asserted that one of the earliest dates, 13 May, was taken over from a pagan festival, the Lemures, in which the malevolent and restless spirits of the dead were propitiated. In any case the feast was already established on that date in the East. In the eighth century the feast was moved to its present date and that on 13 May in Rome was suppressed; such celebrations elsewhere had ceased by the 12th century. Later in the eighth century, the lay religious scholar Alcuin of York used his influence with Charlemagne to introduce the feast of All Saints to the Frankish Kingdom, which later expanded to become the Holy Roman Empire.
Some scholars have proposed that churches in the British Isles began celebrating All Saints on 1 November at the beginning of the 8th century to coincide with or replace the Celtic festival of Samhain, the supposed date of the Celtic festival of the dead, but this too is disputed.
The festival was retained after the Reformation in the calendar of the Church of England, where it may be celebrated either on 1 November or on the Sunday between 30 October and 5 November.
There is broad agreement on the religious significance of the feast. Apostles, martyrs, Teachers and Doctors of the Church and Christian leaders down the centuries and throughout the world are honoured in prayer and celebrations of the Eucharist, irrespective of whether they were martyred. In addition people who have played a part in leading us to faith are honoured. It is impossible to honour them all individually because of their vast numbers. Ultimately the feast is a celebration of Christ`s victory over death.
Among the many I remember in my journey to faith are Miss Jones, who taught us the Collects, Fr Graham Walker, who got me through O-level Religious Knowledge, and Fr Mark Gibbard of the Cowley Fathers, who inculcated a deeper spirituality.
I have long wondered why something that should be so exciting and inspiring, such as the celebration of the often heroic lives of the saints and martyrs, is not more highly regarded. Perhaps it is because we do not celebrate with a strong enough sense that we are part of the same congregation with those who have gone before and who are nearer to God than we are. Indeed many Christians do believe that the saints in heaven present our prayers to God. But whatever the reasons for lack of lively engagement with the cult of the saints, making merely a memorial is not enough. Christianity may be a historical religion. But it is not therefore to be trapped in an ever-receding past. We must remember that everyone is created for and called to saintliness and holiness. To be holy as God is holy (Leviticus 20:26; 1Peter 1:16). It is not for just a select few. The early Church called all Christians ‘saints’. The saints are models of holiness in life and conduct. We can be inspired by their example to strive for the same holiness in our own life. Our choice of saintly role model may be critical.
St Maximilian Kolbe, martyred in Poland in World War II, is one of the saints I find most inspiring. He was introduced to me by Richard Chartres, formerly Bishop London, now an Assistant Bishop in the diocese of Europe. A Polish priest imprisoned in Auschwitz, he volunteered to take the place of a complete stranger sentenced to death. The courage, strength and compassion of St Maximilian to his fellow inmates and even to his executioners reveals the Spirit of God at work in a human life within circumstances of incredible deprivation where survival was the goal of all who were held in the grip of demonic evil. St Maximilian had done a lot of writing, including editing a newspaper. In the age of the internet he would certainly be a blogger. In my book St George and the Dragons I propose St Maximilian as a modern-day St George.
Whenever the feast of All Saints is held many similar customs are observed. Cemetery and grave rituals such as offerings of flowers, candles and prayers or blessings for the graves of loved ones often take place on All Saints` Day.
The celebrations of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day stem from the belief that there is a powerful spiritual bond between those in heaven (the Church triumphant), and the living (the Church militant). All Saints` Day commemorates all those who have attained the beatific vision in Heaven.
What is the beatific vision? I`d better put my cards on the table. First, it is not possible to speak in any detail about the realities of the Age to come (eternity). 1 John 3.2 says `it has not yet been made clear to us what we shall be` and St Paul in 1 Cor 13.12 says `For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face; now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known`. Our present living experience of a personal relationship with God, however, already contains within itself the seeds of eternity. Thus, as Metropolitan Kallistos Ware says in The Orthodox Way, p. 186, `we should speak always with caution, respecting the need for silence`. One thing we can say, I believe: Christianity is not a theory about personal survival but a testimony to the faithfulness of God.
I have long felt the teaching of the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) helpful. His theory of duration as summarized in Guide to Modern Thought by C.E.M. Joad, compares clock time, which measures the sequence of events, with experience, in which listening to a symphony, though it may take over an hour to perform, may seem to pass in moments to those who enjoy it. Experiences of joy seem to me the best analogies to the beatific vision of God available in the here and now. (Bergson, a Jew, came near to converting to Catholicism at the end of his life).
But the most profound appreciation of eternity is to be met with in the Fathers. They teach that in the kingdom that has no end there is not monotony but inexhaustible variety. There is also unending progress, as St Gregory of Nyssa says, a never-ceasing advance. Because God is infinite, this constant `reaching forward` proves limitless. The soul possesses God, and yet still seeks Him; her joy is full, and yet grows always more intense. We go forward `from glory to glory` (2 Cor 3.18). Thus for all the blessed, as Metropolitan Ware writes `Even in the Age to come, the inner meaning of my unique personhood will continue to be eternally a secret between God and me`(op. cit pp. 191-192).
What I am struggling to share, as I have wrestled with the meaning of this dimension of our faith, is much better summed up in one of the greatest of hymns, set to Holst`s stirring tune:
From glory to glory advancing, we praise thee, O Lord;
Thy name with the Father and Spirit be ever adored.
From strength unto strength we go forward on Sion’s highway,
To appear before God in the city of infinite day.
Thanksgiving, and glory and worship, and blessing and love,
One heart and one song have the Saints upon earth and above.
Evermore, O Lord, to thy servants thy presence be nigh;
Ever fit us by service on earth for thy service on high.
Words: Liturgy of St. James. Music: Sheen, Holst.
Click to listen to the hymn From Flory to Glory Advancing on YouTube: