October 25, 2022

All Saints / All Souls Holiday History

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By the time you read this, we will have celebrated All Saints Day in the church. This is a Christian holiday that is celebrated differently in different parts of the world. It was originally begun in the 4th century AD. It had been the practice to remember the lives of Saints on either their birthday or the anniversary of their death. In this case, a Saint was a person whose faith was strong enough that God was able to use them to perform miracles. Their lives were seen as an example to all Christians on how to lead a Christian life. Such persons included the apostles and those whose writings came to be regarded as authoritative for Christian doctrine. Though later a formal process for declaring someone a Saint was formulated, in the beginning, each community looked to those who were local, and of very strong faith. As persecutions increased those who died because of their faith, the martyrs, were considered to be Saints even if there were no miracles associated with them. But there were many more martyrs than days of the year, so eventually, a day was set aside to honor all of those who were Martyrs or local Saints but who may not have been known widely.
The earliest recorded dates for such an observance were on the Friday after Easter (the church in Syria), on the First Sunday after Pentecost (the Churches in Antioch, northern Italy, and Germany), or on May 13 (the church in Edessa). In 610 Pope Boniface IV consecrated the old pagan Pantheon (a temple to all the Roman gods) in Rome as a Christian Church dedicated to Saint Mary and all the Martyrs on May 13, which happened to be the date of the pagan festival of Lemuria on which people made offerings to quiet “malevolent and restless spirits of the dead”. One tradition says that November 1, 731 was the date on which Pope Gregory III consecrated an oratory (a chapel built for prayer, originally for prayers for the dead) within St Peter’s Basilica to “the holy apostles and all saints, martyrs, and confessors, of all of the just made perfect who are at rest throughout the world.” Others claim the dedication was on Palm Sunday of that year. Note that the dedication was not just to prayers for Saints, but for all who had died in Christ.
By 800 the churches in Ireland, England, and Bavaria were celebrating a feast commemoration of All Saints on November 1 which coincided (at least in the British Isles) with the pagan festival of Samhain. This date for All Saints spread throughout the Frankish Empire when officially adopted by Louis the Pious, with the support of Pope Gregory IV. The full Roman Catholic Church had adopted November 1 instead of March 13 by the 12th century. Slowly this turned into a three-day festival. On October 31 (All Saints eve) the evening services honored all the Saints and Martyrs, as did services on November 1. November 2 saw the honoring of “All Souls”, those who had died in the faith, going back to the biblical usage where saints were everyone who believed in Christ. Most protestant churches use November 1 (or the Sunday closest to it) to honor and remember all Christians who have died, and Christ’s victory over death.
The Eastern Orthodox church has generally kept either the Friday after Easter or the Sunday after Pentecost as All Saints day. In some churches the Sunday after all saints is dedicated to the local saints of an area. In Lebanon, the Maronite Christians celebrate all Saints day two Sundays before Lent begins, and All Souls day the Sunday before Lent. The Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox Church Celebrates All Saints Day on September 11, which is also the beginning of their church year.
Whenever and however they celebrate All Saints, and/or all Souls Day this is a celebration that through Christ life doesn’t end, but that death is a new beginning of our relationship with God. It is an affirmation that all Christians are connected through the Body of Christ, no matter when or where they have lived out their faith. It is an affirmation that through the individual witness of Christians, the Church continues to grow and prosper and that the love and fellowship of the Church are not interrupted by death. Thanks be to God. So even if you weren’t in worship with us last Sunday, take some time to remember and thank God for those family members and other Christians who taught you about the faith by precept and by example, and now are part of the Heavenly Kingdom.