Each year on November 1st, the Church throughout the world celebrates one of her chief holy days, the Feast of All Saints. This feast has its roots in the earliest centuries of the Church. Gregory Thaumaturgus, writing before the year 270, mentions a feast of all martyrs. John Chrysostom (d.407) notes that All Saints’ was celebrated on the first Sunday after Pentecost in Constantinople when he was patriarch there. This remains the date of the feast in the Eastern Orthodox Church to this day.
In the West, the commemoration of All Saints on November 1st has its origins in the churches of Ireland and England. From there it spread to the continent and was adopted in Rome by the time of Pope Gregory IV (r. 828-44), in agreement with his bishops and by request of the emperor. This date may have superseded a feast of All Martyrs in Rome that had in earlier days been celebrated in the spring. Liturgical scholars have speculated that in addition to the English precedent, it was easier to feed the vast multitudes of pilgrims that flocked to Rome after the harvest rather than before it in the spring.
On the Feast of All Saints’ the Church remembers the great unnamed company of martyrs, missionaries, virgins, confessors, teachers, preachers, holy fools, and wonder workers who have fought the good fight and are now reigning with their King in heaven. On this day she encourages the church militant to imitate those who have gone before to Glory. The church often prepares new saints at this time, as All Saints’ Day is also a traditional date for baptisms.
In addition, All Saints’ Day stands as a reminder that the Church is far greater than what we see on earth at this time. The Church, built on the foundation of the prophets and Apostles, Jesus Christ being the cornerstone, exists beyond time and space. Bernard Iddings Bell, the great Anglican apologist, painted an excellent picture of this in his book, The Good News, which makes a fit reading for the Feast:
Open our eyes, O Lord, that we may see the company of Thy saints! They are not present in any one place, but we, limited here in human bodies, must imagine them so if we would make them real to ourselves.
Behold blessed Mary, the Mother of Jesus, most beautiful of all the saints, most wonderful of all women. See her gracious face, lined with the sorrows of that life wherein a sword of grief entered into the very soul of her, the sword of a longing mother’s love. Here is Peter, too, the headstrong, stubborn fisherman, first to acknowledge Jesus as God. See Paul, his diseased body dominated by his mighty spirit, his tired face radiant with faith and hope and love. There is John the Evangelist, youngest of all the twelve, bent now with an hundred years of earthly life, looking on us, even as he did with his half-blind eyes, those eyes which had seen visions on Patmos Isle, on his congregation in Ephesus. He draws the sign of the Cross over us in blessing and says, “Little children, a new commandment I give unto you. Let us love one another.” Look on sainted Polycarp, he who from the fire of his martyrdom cried, “Eighty and six years have I served Him; and shall I deny Him now?” Behold Ambrose, who hesitated not to expel even an emperor from Christ’s communion because he lived a life of tyranny. Look on Augustine, who, in days more distressing than ours, wrote of the inevitable triumph of God’s love and justice, even while the barbarians were toppling over civilization all about him; and Monica his mother, she who prayed so faithfully all the years her son lived in pride and riot and vice, until her prayer was heard and he was found by Jesus.
And who are these, this band of heroes, men, women, tiny children, singing such praises to Christ? These are they who sang long years ago, while deep in undertone rose the hoarse cry of the mobs in the amphitheatre above and around them, “To the lions with these Christians!” They sang to Jesus, though the beasts rushed out. Look, too, at Prisca and Aquila and the virgin martyrs with them, they who submitted to torture, maiming, rape, murder, rather than deny Him who had loved them unto the death of the Cross.
And now we see them coming in such great throngs that we can scarce recognize them at all. There is gaunt John the Golden-mouthed of Constantinople, the fearless challenger of wicked and exploiting respectability. There is Bernard, who saved France when anarchy reigned. There is Benedict, whose monks kept learning alive when the earlier barbarians straffed the world. See Augustine and his monks, who, landing in England with their crucifix before them, won our motherland for Christ away from gods of cruelty and hate. Boniface and Willibrord,–they carried the Gospel into the great Teutonic forests to the northward, those dread and Druid-haunted halls. There is Anselm and that greater Archbishop, Thomas of Canterbury, who stood for religion in England against the command of haughty kings. There are Laud and King Charles the Martyr, who stood for religion in England against the equally haughty and unrighteous commands of mobs of commoners. St. Francis, lover of the poor, and St. Clara, his co-worker. Frederick Maurice and Charles Kingsley and Ludlow, Pusey and Newman and Keble, Samuel and John Wesley, are but a few of Englishmen we see.
Of heroic mission heroes there are Jackson Kemper, Bishop Whipple from the Indians of Minnesota, Livingston from Africa, Williams from the South Seas, Selwyn from Australia, Francis Xavier from China, Savonarola and John Ball and Wycliffe and William Morris and Spalding of Utah, and others like them who have dreamed of heavenly brotherhood on earth. And all the million martyrs of Armenia. Yes, and your loved ones, and my loved ones, whom we knew on this earth, for whom in love we pray now that they are what men call dead. And round these whom we have recognized a great multitude which no man can number, souls of whom the world was not worthy, who cease not day or night to praise Him whom they have loved and served, lived for and died for on this earth. “And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude” says St. John, “and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunders, saying Hallelujah, for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.” With angels, and archangels, this, the company of Heaven, cries, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts. Heaven and earth are full of thy glory. Glory be to thee, O Lord, Most High.”
How full of hope, encouragement, strength, is the vision of God’s Church in all its greatness. We feebly struggle, yes; but they in glory shine. Is life hard for us? It was for them. Are we persecuted for righteousness sake? Happy are we, for so persecuted they the prophets which were before us.
Please join the Church of the Advent as we celebrate the Feast of All Saints’ with our brothers at Saint Augustine’s House, 3316 Drahner Rd, Oxford, MI 48370, this Thursday, November 1 at 7.00 p.m..