All Saints Sunday

Many churches that use the Revised Common Lectionary celebrate All Saints Day on this first Sunday in November. Here is a rite I posted last year.

Here is last year’s All Saints post (2010), on the Lukan Beatitudes.

Here is the 2009 post with a poem by Pastor John McCullough-Bade.

I treated the Beatiudes extensively at this year’s Theological Conference (January 2011 in Galveston). Find the Beatitudes Placemat HERE.

Christians of the Byzantine Tradition commemorate Αγίων Πάντων, Hagiōn Pantōn or All Saints on the first Sunday after Pentecost. In the West, All Hallows, or Hallowmas, was celebrated November 1. This date was fixed by Pope Gregory III in the eighth century. Prior to that it may have been celebrated in May as Holy Martyrs. When pagan communities became Christian, they often kept their holiday times. Many suggest that Easter replaced the Rite of Spring and Christmas replaced Winter Solstice. Some speculate that Holy Martyrs replaced the pagan Feast of Lemures, a time to appease the spirits of the dead.

Wikipedia says, “In many Lutheran churches, All Saints’ Day and Reformation Day are observed concurrently…” since Reformation Day is October 31 and All Saints Day is November 1. “Typically, Martin Luther’s A Mighty Fortress is Our God is sung during the service… The observance of Reformation Day may be immediately followed by a reading of those members of the local congregation who have died in the past year in observance of All Saints’ Day…”

Frank Senn, in The People’s Work, A Social History of the Liturgy, suggests that Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses on the eve of All Saints Day was intentional. Frederick the Wise’s massive collection of relics were usually displayed on All Saints Day. Indulgences totalling one million years could be obtained by venerating them (which, of course, cost money). Luther abhorred this industry of death. Even the theology department at Paris had condemned the system of relics and the purchase of plenary indulgences. Luther still believed in purgatory, but in an Augustinian way, not the way it was being propagated. One could not buy ones way out of purgatory. There were no “saved up” treasures of the saints for us to access. The treasure of the church is the gospel itself. In time, Luther and Calvin would question the existence of purgatory, since they found no Scriptural basis for it. Henry the VIII also rejected the doctrine of purgatory, disbanded the chantries, but curiously never replaced it all with the doctrine of justification.

Because of the intermixture of church and state, for a city to embrace the principles of the Reformation, there had to be a government decree. Imperial cities of the empire had already been debating the ethics of indulgences, but implementing the Reformation was a more complex matter. Nuremberg was the first imperial city to embrace the Reformation by civil decree. This was done by heavy debate, followed by a vote of the city council. The papal nuncio called for the arrest of preachers preaching Reformation ideas, but they were protected by the city council.

This meant an end to masses for the dead, the Latin mass, vigils for the dead, purgatory, consecrated salt and water, and more. Of course these changes were embraced more in some places than others. Change happens slowly in the church. All this meant a severe income loss to the church, whose economy was built upon gifts to the church on behalf of the dead. The Reformation was an attack on the ecclesiastical economy.

Lutherans even went to the point of doing away with church funerals, having only committals at graveside. It must be understood that these were strong measures taken to dismantle a very complex and entrenched pattern. They also pushed for less extravagant ceremonies, so that the poor would not be embarrassed. Prayers for the dead were eliminated. Martin Bucer acknowledges that praying for the dead is an ancient custom, but since Scripture neither commands nor speaks of praying to the dead, he was for doing away with it.

The English Reformation went a similar way. Senn points out that in 1549 Cranmer’s liturgy still has the priest speaking to the dead: “I commend thy soul to God the Father almighty, and thy body to the ground, earth to earth, asshes to asshes, dust to dust.” By the printing of the 1552 Prayer Book, the dead were neither prayed for or spoken to. The committal, was for the living, who committed the deceased’s body to the ground.

In the Lutheran-Catholic dialogs in the U.S. the Catholic theologians encouraged Lutherans to embrace a more permeable curtain between living and dead, rather than an iron curtain. We believe in the communion of saints. There is perhaps room for Lutherans to consider this, not as a return to a Medieval ecclesiastical economy, but as a matter of temporal perspective. In our Eucharistic liturgy we pray “with all the saints.” We don’t typically pray to them, or for them, but we can pray with them our tradition says, even encourages. In the end, Lutherans agreed that at the very least, Scripture does not forbid prayers for the dead.

The apostle Paul did not use the word saints to refer to dead people who lived exemplary lives. Paul uses the word 39 times. He refers to people who are quite alive. He refers to the recipients of most of his letters as saints in Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Colossae, etc. He encourages them to contribute to the needs of the saints in Jerusalem. He says in Ephesians 4, that the role of church leaders is to equip the saints for the work of ministry. The word saint, means a holy person. Holy means set apart for God’s purposes. Paul’s sense of the word, is that the people of the way are a holy people, saved by grace, and called by God to be about God’s kingdom in the world.

All Saints Day in Protestant traditions becomes a time to remember those holy ones who have gone before us. We remember those faithful departed from our congregation that have passed on to eternal life. Many congregations provide an opportunity for people to come forward and light a candle in memory of a dearly departed loved one. In every congregation where I served, this was a powerful and emotional service. It was like Easter in the Fall, a celebration of the hope of the resurrection, which, in a sense, every Sunday is supposed to be.