Note: This is the second in a 3-part series on Allhallowtide, the 3-day season of remembering the dead that spans All Hallows Eve (Oct 31), All Saints (Nov 1), and All Souls (Nov 2). The first two parts were written by Becky Keller. Read Part 1 here.
Holy seasons often get compressed to their highlights. The same is true for Allhallowtide, the three days including Halloween, the Feast of All Saints on November 1, and the Feast of All Souls on November 2. Although these dates were standardized as early as the tenth century, there remains some confusion over their meaning.
It doesn’t help much that ‘saint’ itself is a slippery term, already in the New Testament. Paul calls all Christians ‘saints,’ sanctified as we are by association with Christ. (See, for example, 1 Corinthians 1:2 and Romans 1:7.) The term in Pauline usage seems to refer to the holiness inherent in the community as a people chosen by God, rather than to a personal attribute of an individual. We are all called to be saints in the Pauline sense.
Nevertheless, the concept of holiness applies naturally to a group of people who are set apart by their moral purity and intimate union with God. This seems to be the context for verses like Revelation 17:6, which apposes saints with martyrs. Though the term ‘saint’ is applicable to all Christians, it is also used in a more technical sense for martyrs, or for others who have lived lives of exemplary holiness or devotion to God.
The term is perhaps most opaque in the Anglican tradition, which retained the feasts of the saints after the sixteenth century split from Rome, but developed no official canonization process like that of the Roman Catholic Church. Though we’ve added new saints to the calendar since the sixteenth century, the process has been organic and fluid, changing according to the needs of the church.
It should be emphasized that the church doesn’t make saints. That’s something only God can do. The church merely recognizes and calls attention to those who have lived lives of extraordinary holiness.
All of those in heaven bear the title Saint, whether we know them or not. The Feast of All Saints is an opportunity to remember and commemorate all of the saints, but especially those who are not honored on other days of the year. All Saints’ Day emphasizes our connection to those who have gone before us, that we might be encouraged by their examples and strengthened by their fellowship.
If you’re from a church background that emphasizes the equality of all Christians before God in Christ, you might feel uncomfortable with the very notion of saints, or the idea that holiness is in any way measurable. Still, you might find encouragement for the life of faith by learning about those who have walked the way before you.
At its core, the Feast of All Saints is an affirmation of the belief that there is a spiritual connection, an intimate bond, between the saints in heaven and Christians here on earth. We are not alone in our struggles here, but are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. The saints can walk with us, if we let them. They can be a powerful resource in our efforts to draw ever closer to Christ.
- Becky Keller