Thursday, November 01, 2007

All Saints Day

With all the fuss over Halloween (or All Hallows Eve) it's strange that there is almost no awareness of the reason for the holiday - All Saints' Day (or All Hallows, or Hallowmas - "hallows" meaning "saints," and "mas" meaning "Mass"). It is a feast celebrated on November 1 or on the first Sunday after Pentecost in honour of all the saints, known and unknown. Although the Christian elements of this holiday have been overshadowed by the commercialism (candy, costumes) and the occult, there are some vestiges of historic Christian origins seen in our current celebrations. Let's look through some of the history to see some of the mingling of the sacred and secular.

In the early Church, Christians would celebrate the anniversary of every martyr's death for Christ (known as the saint's "birth day") by serving an All-Night Vigil, and then celebrating the Eucharist over their tomb or place of martyrdom. Frequently, a number of Christians would suffer martyrdom on the same day, which naturally led to a joint commemoration. In the persecution of Diocletian (245-316) the number of martyrs became so great that a separate day could not be assigned to each. But the Church, feeling that every martyr should be venerated, appointed a common day for all. Over time it also became a day to venerate all saints who had passed on not just martyrs. All Souls' Day was eventually added following All Saints Day to commemorate the departed faithful who had not yet been venerated as saints.

A commemoration of "All Martyrs" began to be celebrated as early as the year 270. It was originally celebrated around Easter and then on the first Sunday after Pentecost which is the day the Eastern Orthodox church still celebrates All Saints Day. The feast of All Saints, on its current date, is traced back to Pope Gregory III (731-741) who moved it to November 1 coinciding with the Celtic pagan holiday of Samhain.

In the first ages, during the night before every feast (primarily Christmas, Easter, Assumption and All Saints), a vigil was kept. In the evening the faithful assembled in the place or church where the feast was to be celebrated and prepared themselves by prayers, readings from Holy Writ and sometimes also by hearing a sermon. On such occasions, as on fast days in general, Mass also was celebrated in the evening, before the Vespers of the following day. Towards morning the people dispersed to the streets and houses near the church, to wait for the solemn services of the forenoon. The morning intermission gave rise to grave abuses; the people caroused and danced in the streets and halls around the church.

So we see that even in the sacred observance of All Saints there were elements of the current Halloween celebration going on. There was the gruesomeness and violence of the martyring of the saints, some elements of the ghostly in remembering those who had gone before and then we see the carousing connected to the abuses during the vigils of the night before a feast.

For Christians this should be a time when we do remember the contributions of those who have gone before. We rest on their shoulders and are able to learn much from them. We certainly have a heritage received from the Apostles as they live with the Saviour and passed down much of our Scripture. We learn from the church fathers and those who were persecuted for their faith. The saints of old and the saints of the Reformation to those who have only recently passed away - each contributes to our fuller understanding of the purposes of God. This remembering challenges us to press on to the high calling of God as the writer to the Hebrews reminds us ...

1Therefore, 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. 2Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. Hebrews 12:1-3

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