We are all saints

All Saints Day: A different way of celebrating life

Isabella of Portugal by Titian

Isabella of Portugal by Titian

Yme Woensdregt

We just celebrated Hallowe’en earlier this week. The name of this orgy of candy and sweets is a contraction of “All Hallows’ Eve”, which is the evening before All Saints’ Day (November 1). The very name reminds us of its origin in religious belief.

All Saints Day is a time when Christians have honoured saints and martyrs since at least the 2nd century. The list of those being honoured varied from location to location, and the first reference to a general feast celebrating all saints comes from late in the 4th century.

Early in the 5th century, St. John Chrysostom assigned the first Sunday after Pentecost for the feast, a date still observed by Eastern Churches. November 1 was set as the observance of All Saints Day during the 8th century.

At the beginning of the Christian movement, following Jesus was a dangerous and costly path to walk. To witness to Jesus could cost you your life. In fact, the word “martyr” comes from the Greek word for “witness”. The early church knew thousands of such witnesses who were tortured and killed for their faith … quite different from modern church–goers in North America.

The general feast day to commemorate martyrs and saints helps Christians celebrate the lives and witness of those who have gone before us. At Christ Church, we take this opportunity every year to remember those who have died in the past year. We give thanks for their lives of faithful hope and witness. Doing so reminds us that we are connected to our past, which shapes us in many ways.

But All Saints Day does more than celebrate those who have gone before us. In the New Testament, Paul uses the word “saints” to refer to the Church on earth. That means that all who live in the presence of God are saints. You. Me. We are the holy ones of God, not because we are perfect. We are holy because we belong to a holy God.

When we remember and celebrate the saints, the church recalls the history of humanity in a different way than the usual way our society remembers history. History remembers those who were “great” in some way—as conquerors or inventors, as monarchs or dictators, as people who have achieved something noteworthy. At the same time, we are living in a culture of celebrity, when you can achieve fame even though you have accomplished nothing.

On All Saints Day, we remember the lives of countless ordinary men, women, and children who have walked faithfully in the way of Jesus.

Elaine Ramshaw, in her wonderful book “Ritual and Pastoral Care” writes that “History is usually the story of conquerors, where greatness is measured in wars won and people subdued.”

American humorist Will Cuppy poked fun at our conceit in writing history this way in “The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody”, he wrote about Alexander III of Macedonia that “he is known as Alexander the Great because he killed more people of more different kinds than any other man of his time.”

The church remembers a different kind of hero. Ramshaw continues, “The liturgical year commemorates saints who suffered unjustly, or who alleviated or prevented the suffering of others.”

Let me give a few examples. On July 4, we remember Isabel (Elizabeth) of Portugal, who prevented several wars by convincing her royal relatives to negotiate rather than encourage their peasants to slaughtering each other.

On July 29, we remember WilliamWilberforce, who worked tirelessly to stop the slave trade in the English parliament during the 18th and 19th centuries, giving himself completely to that campaign and sacrificing his health (the story is movingly told in the movie “Amazing Grace”).

On November 11 we remember Martin of Tours, a 4th century soldier who had been converted to the Christian faith, and announced before a battle that his faith prohibited him from fighting. Charged with cowardice, he was scheduled to be executed, but was reprieved when the enemy sued for peace, and the battle never occurred. Some 12 years later, he was elected bishop of Tours, France. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that on Remembrance Day, the church remembers and celebrates a soldier who refused to fight.

On November 17, we remember Hugh of Lincoln, celebrating him as a compassionate and loving bishop, who stood alone to face down anti–Semitic lynch mobs in his diocese. At that time, there were Jew–murdering riots in every major English city … except Hugh’s diocese of Lincoln.

All Saints Day points us to a different way of remembering and celebrating life. Instead of seeing such people as human–interest sidebar stories in a history focussed on the wielders of power, the calendar of the church places them on centre stage of the history that matters.

Rev. Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook