Some Thoughts on All Saints’ Day
I’ve always enjoyed this time of year. The nights are getting cooler (but it’s still too early for snow), the leaves are turning, and the holiday season is coming. Soon, we’ll be thinking about Thanksgiving and Christmas, but before that, we’ll get to Halloween. For most people Halloween is a fun holiday involving costumes and candy (and, for the brave, scary movies). Most people don’t realize that Halloween comes from “All Hallows Eve,” a Christian version of an older pagan holiday. On the church calendar, Halloween is surrounded by All Saints Day and All Souls Day. These two days don’t get much attention in the Protestant church now: we think of sainthood as a recognition of a special degree of holiness, and All Souls is a day to think about the meaning of death, which strikes some people as morbid. But really, All Saints Day and All Souls Day are opportunities to focus on God’s promise of redemption and resurrection, to acknowledge our mortality, and to think about those who have gone before us into the next life.
Most people think of saints as people who have been granted a “privileged” status by virtue of acts of holiness and charity. Most Protestants don’t think about sainthood, preferring to focus on Paul’s statement that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). No one can claim any special or privileged status before God, and yet Paul goes on to say that “all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). Every sinner in this world has the chance to be made holy in God’s eyes by Christ. That’s why Paul can address the church in Ephesus as “the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 1:1). The word translated “saints” literally means “holy ones”—people who are made holy by Christ’s presence in them. The consequences of human sin are on display in the world around us, and in our own lives. All Saints Day is a recognition that because of Christ, that brokenness is overcome: our sin is forgiven, our brokenness is healed, and a world not infected by sin now and in the next life are possible.
All Souls Day also turns our minds towards that resurrected life with God. One of the lectionary texts for All Souls Day is John 11, which includes one of Jesus’s best-known statements: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). Jesus says this to Martha, the sister of Jesus’s friend Lazarus, who has recently died. Jesus and Martha are faced with the fact of human mortality. Every person is faced with mortality—their own, and their loved ones’. Our culture teaches us to deny mortality, and to fight it as long as possible, but we secretly know that death is a part of life. Jesus tells us that if we have faith in him, we’ll rise with him, and live eternally with God. That life should be reflected in the way we live now.
Finally, All Saints Day and All Souls Day are often taken as a chance to remember those who have already died and joined what’s called the Church Triumphant: the saved who have already died and joined Christ in heaven. We’ve all been influenced by the faith of parents, grandparents, friends, Sunday school teachers, and countless others who have encouraged our faith. The author of Hebrews writes, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:1). We’ve all had people in our lives who have shown us God’s love; it’s good for us to remember them, and to be reminded that even death doesn’t separate us from the God who became human to die to redeem us.