Monday, November 01, 2010

All Saints' Day Background

Today is All Saints' Day, which always falls on November 1st. If All Saints' Day does not fall on a Sunday, many churches celebrate it on the Sunday thereafter. This year, I think a few churches celebrated it on Halloween (All Hallow's Eve) as All Saints fell on a Monday. (Technically, this is incorrect because a Holy Day if it is to be transferred must go to the nearest Sunday after the event, at least according to rubrics.)

All Saints Day has an interesting history. According to most Church historians, the day evolved in the early centuries of Christianity when it became customary for a specific region or city to remember a local martyr who died, usually in one of the Roman persecutions. As time went by, the number of martyrs commemorated grew to the point where not every Saint could be recognized. There are only so many days on the calendar.

The early Church did not feel it was appropriate to short change some commemorations, so the idea arose to have a day where all the saints were commemorated on the same day. There are evidences of an annual day long commemoration all the Christians who have died in the extant sermons of Ephraim the Syrian  (373) and John Chrysostom's 74th homily (407).

At first, it appeared the commemoration was only to remember Martyrs and John the Baptist. Then the original Apostolic fathers were added. By the year 411, the first "Commemoratio Confessorum" appears on the Chaldean Calendar for the Friday after Easter. In fact in Eastern Christianity, All Saints Day is still celebrated on the first Sunday after Pentecost.

In 610, Pope Boniface IV consecrated a former pagan temple in Rome to the Blessed Virgin Mary and all Martyrs and ordered an annual anniversary. By the mid-730s, Pope Gregory III consecrated a chapel to "All the Saints" and fixed the annual remembrance to November 1st. By the Early Renaissance, Pope Sixtus IV made All Saints' Day an 7 day octave (festival).

All Hallow's Eve, the day before All Saints, seems to be as old as the Day itself. In fact, given a lot of the pagan background of All Hallow's Eve, one could argue the eve, or at least many of the traditions therein, is paradoxically older than All Saints' Day itself.

In the more Protestant West, All Saints' Day did not initially fare well due to many more Protestant understandings of saints and the hostility towards "catholic" ideas of "praying to saints" and the excesses of indulgences and all that. Anglicans and many Lutherans have always retained All Saints' Day. More Calvinist or Reformed strands merged it with Reformation Day celebrations or dropped it entirely, due to its connotation with the catholic notion of saints. Some Protestant groups have reclaimed it as part of their theological heritage in the 20th century, though some theological hostility still remains in some quarters.

One fun pop culture note: The NFL team awarded to New Orleans was named the Saints, and was awarded in a press conference on All Saints' Day, 1966.

As an editor's note, I will try at some point this week to add a few theological reflections on All Saints' Day and the important meaning of the Day. It is a rich heritage, and makes for great sermon writing.

Until then, Happy All Saints' Day!

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