Celebrating All Saints' and All Souls' Day

Celebrating All Saints' and All Souls' Day

by the Rev. Leo Joseph, Priest-in-Charge of St. John's, Lakeport

In our Baptismal Covenant we, along with traditional Christians around the globe, profess in the ancient Baptismal Creed the words: “I believe in... the communion of saints, ... the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.” (Book of Common Prayer, page 304)

In our annual observance of All Saints’ Day, and the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed on the following day, we make those words a tangible reality in the here and now by recognizing and celebrating our relationship, not only with those around us today, but also with all those who have gone before us in all times and places.

One of the important functions of religion is building and maintaining “Holy Community,” which is a concept that is severely threatened in our modern world. This has been done in the Judeo-Christian tradition by “remembering,” not nostalgic “looking back,” but by “making present” the greatness of God’s goodness and love in our lives today. This is done by means of story and ritual, as our Jewish friends do principally at Passover and we Christians do at Easter and, indeed, every Sunday in our celebration of the Holy Eucharist.

These celebrations are also tied to the natural cycle of the year as we experience them in the Northern Hemisphere. Just as Passover and Easter reflect the phenomenon of rebirth in spring, autumn naturally turns our thoughts to death and eternity. As the days shorten and the growing darkness overcomes us, our common ancestors marked this season with various rituals centered around fire, food gathered at the harvest, and being conscious of those who had gone before us. So this season of year is a natural time for the Church to remember her, and our, loved ones who made us who we are today.

All Saints’ Day, or the following Sunday as is often the case in our busy schedule, is when the Church honors all Holy Ones, known and unknown. Our English word “saint” literally means “holy.”

In the broad sense, all we who are baptized are included in this category, but from the beginning of the Christian tradition, certain of the faithful whose lives were exemplary have been held before us as our models and guides.

While we have information about many Saints, and we honor them on specific days, there are many unknown or unsung Saints, who may have been forgotten. On All Saints’ Day, we celebrate these Holy Ones of the Lord, and ask for their prayers for us.

Thus, All Saints’ Day is tied in with the belief in the Communion of Saints, that all of God's people, in this earthly life and in the various states of the larger life, are connected in one communion. In other words, traditional Christians believe that the Saints of God are just as alive as you and I, and are constantly praying on our behalf.

The Saints are not divine, nor omnipresent or omniscient. However, because of our common communion with and through Jesus Christ, our prayers are joined with the heavenly community of Christians.

Christians have been praying for their departed brothers and sisters since the earliest days of Christianity. Ancient liturgies and inscriptions on walls of catacombs attest to the antiquity of prayers for the dead. In the early days, departed Christians' names were inscribed on diptychs, which were bi-fold waxen tablets, and brought to the Altar.

Praying for the dead is actually borrowed from Judaism, as recorded in 2 Maccabees 12:41-45 of the Apocrypha. Early Christian teachers of the Faith, such as Tertullian, St. Cyprian, and others, testify to the regular practice of praying for the souls of the departed.

A popular name in English for this Commemoration of the Faithful Departed is All Souls' Day; this day is observed not only in the Roman Catholic Church, but also in the Old Catholic Churches and most of the Churches of the Anglican Communion. In some other languages the celebration is known as Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos or de los Difuntos in Spanish-speaking countries; halottak napja in Hungary; Yom el Maouta in Lebanon, Israel, and Syria.)

The Christian custom of setting apart a special day of remembrance for certain of the Faithful Departed on November 2 was first established by St. Odilo, Abbot of Cluny in AD 998. Lists of the names of those to be remembered were placed in the proximity of the altar on which the Holy Eucharist was celebrated.

From Cluny the custom spread to the other Monasteries in Europe. The celebration was soon adopted in several dioceses in France, and spread to England and throughout the Western Church. It was accepted in Rome only in the fourteenth century.

Initially many Protestant reformers rejected All Souls' Day because the theology behind this observance was associated by them with such Late Medieval doctrines as Purgatory and the abusive practices of paying for Masses for the Dead. The day is now being celebrated in many Protestant communities. Some Protestants do pray for the dead and Anglican liturgies include some of the most beautiful prayers which are cast in a “holy ambiguity” as to the condition of the deceased until the Day of Resurrection.

At the time of the English Reformation the celebration of All Souls' Day was fused with All Saints’ Day in the Church of England, though it was restored individually in certain parishes influenced by the Anglo Catholic Revival of the 19th century. The observance was officially restored in The Episcopal Church with the publication of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and called the "Commemoration of All Faithful Departed.”

Among continental Protestants its tradition has been more tenaciously maintained. Even Martin Luther’s influence was not sufficient to abolish its celebration in Saxony during his lifetime; and, though its ecclesiastical sanction soon lapsed even in the Lutheran Church, its memory survives strongly in popular custom.

Just as it is the custom of French people of all ranks and creeds to decorate the graves of their dead on the “Jour des Morts,” German and Polish people stream to the graveyards once a year with offerings of flowers and special grave lights.

Rituals around the certainty of death and the care of the dead are universal. All Souls' Day in European folklore is related to customs of veneration for one’s ancestors which is practiced worldwide, through events such as the Roman custom of the Lemuria, the Celtic Samhain, the Chinese Ghost Festival, the Japanese Bon Festival, or the Mexican Day of the Dead.

In the Tyrol, cakes are left for the dead on the table and the room kept warm for their comfort. In Brittany, people flock to the cemeteries at nightfall to kneel, bareheaded, at the graves of their loved ones, and to anoint the hollow of the gravestone with Holy Water and pour libations of milk on it. At bedtime, an extra supper is left on the table for the souls.

When I was growing up during the 1950s in a Polish Catholic community, after Mass on All Saints’ Day, a catafalque was set up in front of the altar. This catafalque consisted of a casket shaped structure draped in a silver trimmed black funeral pall, surrounded by six standing candlesticks, and decorated with additional candles, flowers, and other sacred mementos. Black bordered papers with the lists of every family’s departed were collected, bound with ribbons, and placed on the High Altar. Evening Prayer in honor of the Dead was sung by the clergy vested in black copes. The next morning a Solemn Requiem Mass was sung, and was concluded with prayers said over the catafalque.

How can we keep these traditions alive in our lives today?

Here in California, we are increasingly becoming aware of the Mexican tradition of creating an Altar of the Dead, sometimes the centerpiece of a festive meal and even a street procession.

As Episcopalians we can do something similar, drawing on our rich Anglican traditions that were largely lost in the over-intellectualization after the Reformation.

This might consist of a small Altar of Remembrance set up in a visible place in the chancel, draped, maybe, with the parish Funeral Pall and adorned with lighted candles and fall flowers and foliage.

All parish families may then place the names their departed loved ones, small photos, and other mementos on this altar. A shallow metal tray filled with sand might be placed in front of this altar, so that each of the members of the congregation might place a lighted taper there. Potted autumn plants could also be offered, which later could be taken to decorate the family plot at the cemetery.

At the time of the final blessing of the All Saints’ Day Mass, a special prayer service for the departed could be done by the priest or lay worship leader, drawn from the Burial of the Dead and additional prayers in our Book of Common Prayer. Holy Water and Incense may also enrich this ritual.

At home, children can be taught to revere the dead by taking them to the cemetery. This can indeed turn out to be a family outing at a time when Nature seems to shed her old garb and make preparations to adorn herself anew. Ideally you can visit the graves of your own deceased family members.

It would be a good time to tell the younger members of your family stories about their great-grandparents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, and how they have influenced your life and that of your family's.

Digress from your routine for once on All Souls’ Day. Retire to bed late and take out the old family albums instead. Go through them and revive some old and happy memories of the family members who are not amongst you anymore and share them with your children.

You can invite the family and friends for a festive meal. Ask them to bring photos or mementos of the dead. Then build an altar together at home by setting a table against a wall and covering it with a cloth. Embellish the table with flowers, wreaths, garlands, incense sticks, and the mementos of the persons who you wish to remember. Place photos of the dead on the altar, and don't forget to keep candles burning.

Remember to give thanks to God for your deceased relatives in your regular bedtime prayers.

There is a Mexican saying that we die three deaths: the first is when our bodies die, the second is when our bodies are lowered into the earth out of sight, and the third is when our loved ones forget us. Christians forestall that last death by seeing the faithful dead as members of the Church, alive in Christ, and by praying for them and asking their prayers for us.

Rest eternal, grant unto them, O Lord;
and let light perpetual shine upon them.

3 comments (Add your own)

1. Mary Hauck wrote:
Bless you, brother and friend, for your ministry of thoughtful Christian writing.
God's peace,
Mary+

Fri, November 2, 2012 @ 3:42 PM

2. Minerva Haddad wrote:
Wonderful, informative sermon. Bless you, dear Leo.
Minerva Haddad

Fri, November 2, 2012 @ 6:02 PM

3. Pati Moye wrote:
Thank you for the explanation and history - this was exactly what I was looking for to share with friends and family. I am a mental health professional and had a client tell me yesterday, "I think we have forgotten how to grieve and how to remember people who have died. Everybody is just too busy."

Pati Moye
Camden, SC

Thu, October 30, 2014 @ 6:47 AM

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