Today is All Saints Sunday – another one of those special observances that the Church celebrates from time to time throughout the year. The emphasis of this day has changed throughout various periods of history, and I thought that it might be interesting to look at how it has evolved – and then to look at what it means for us today.
The original purpose of the celebration was to remember Christian martyrs who had died for their faith – especially those who did not have a specific day assigned to commemorate them. All Martyrs Day began to be observed throughout the Church by the end of the third century – usually on the first Sunday after Pentecost. In the Eastern Churches, it is still celebrated on that date – although it has been expanded to include All Saints and not just martyrs.
In the Western Church, Pope Gregory III during 731-741 directed that this day should commemorate “all saints, martyrs, and confessors, (and) of all the just made perfect who are at rest throughout the world” and moved its observance to November 1st – the date that it is still celebrated by Western Christians. The day after, November 2nd, then began to be observed as “All Souls Day” as a time to remember and pray for the souls of the faithful who have not yet been cleansed from all their sins and therefore (unlike saints) are not yet in heaven but are rather in purgatory.
Lutherans since the time of the Reformation have retained the observance of All Saints Day on November 1st or the first Sunday following, but obviously with a different emphasis than the traditional Roman Catholic understanding. We Lutherans do not believe that saints are persons who are better or holier than most other people. We are ALL saints – not because of our own “goodness” but rather because God has declared us to be his holy people through our baptism into Christ. Anyone and everyone who is baptized is a saint of God!
On All Saints Day, we especially remember that we are SAINTS who have been – as today’s second reading puts it – “marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit…the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.” (Eph. 1:13-14) We are not perfect people (indeed, we are far from perfect!) but God in his mercy through Jesus Christ has redeemed us from the powers of sin and death. As his saints, God has given us the assurance that one day we will finally inherit the kingdom of heaven in its completeness and have eternal life. On this day, we lift up “the eyes of our hearts” beyond the day-to-day situations that we find ourselves in and remember that God has a wonderful destiny in store for us. As God’s saints, we have the blessings of his love right now and look forward to receiving even more blessings in the life yet to come.
On this day, we also remember that as God’s saints we have been blessed in order to be a blessing to others. As God’s people, we are called to share his love with one another and with everyone we meet. As today’s gospel puts it, we are called to love even our enemies, to do good to those who hate us, to bless those who curse us, and pray for those who abuse us. We are also called to give to those in need, and do to others as we would have them do to us. (Lk. 6:27-31)
These are not moral qualities or “works” that we do in order to be saints – they are rather things we do because God has made us his saints. If we truly understand that we are indeed saints, we will want to BE like saints in our relationships with each other – and thus be a part in bringing God’s kingdom into this world. On this day of All Saints, we remember that we are all called to “saintly living” in our thoughts, words, and actions – to the praise of God’s glory!
All Saints Day is also traditionally a day for remembering the saints who have gone on before us – who have died and have entered what we call the Church Triumphant. These saints may no longer be with us physically, but they are nevertheless still very much a part of who and what we are. Indeed, the very fact that we know about Jesus Christ and believe in him and in his promises of resurrection and eternal life is because of the witness of countless persons down through history. Some of those persons may have been well known to us and even close to us – such as parents or other relatives, teachers, or friends. Others may have been known but less immediately close to us. Still others – indeed, MOST others – are UNKNOWN to us. They are, however, all known to God – and their witness, no matter how small or how long ago in the distant past – is a part of the faith that we have today. Yes, on this day we give thanks to God for our departed saints – for all that their lives have meant for us and for many others.
But All Saints Day is more than just a day for remembering and giving thanks for those who have died. It is most of all a day for celebrating their continuing presence with us! In a mystical but very real way they are as close as the air we breathe – for they are with Jesus, who is also with us. We may not see them physically, but they are just as much a part of the communion of saints as we are – for this communion includes all of God’s people of every time and every place.
As we receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion on this All Saints Day, may we remember that we are communing with Jesus and with the entire communion of saints. We are communing with each other as God’s saints of the here and now – and we are also communing with all of the rest of God’s saints – even those who have died – who are now with the Lord even as he comes to us in this meal. What a wonderful thought and understanding this is!
On this All Saints Day may we always remember that we are God’s saints through our baptism into Jesus Christ. Yes, we are saints – not because we are so good but because Jesus has come to make us good. We are saints who have been promised the inheritance of heaven and eternal life. We are saints who have been blessed to be a blessing to others in our lives and in our world. We are saints who belong to the communion of saints of every time and every place – a communion that nothing, not even death itself, will ever destroy. Yes, we are SAINTS! We are ALL SAINTS! Thanks be to God! Amen!
George R. Karres,
Pella Lutheran Church
418 W. Main Street
Sidney, MT 59270