November 1 and November 2

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The Communion of Saints?

The Apostles Creed includes an affirmation that may strike many modern Christians as unusual. In a relatively short Creed that has served for almost two millennia as a basic outline of Christian belief, we find this line:

“I believe ... in the communion of saints.”

Among the doctrines central to the earliest Christian church, the affirmation that we (the living) remain in communion with the faithful departed was considered important enough to include in a summary of the Christian faith.

In the spirit of passages like Hebrews 11, All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2) teach us to honor most those people most worthy of honor. And in the spirit of passages like Revelation 21-22, these Holy Days also remind us that death is not the end, and that at this very moment a great cloud of witnesses comprised of those who have gone before us are offering praise to God in the heavenly realm.

(You can read more about why saints are worthy of commemorating throughout the year in the Why celebrate Saints? article that is now unlocked for free subscribers.)

So for today, continue reading below for the fascinating history of these two Holy Days, as well as a habit to adopt as we encounter them year after year.

An icon of the nineteen martyrs of Algeria, Written by Odile. (Icons are not drawn, they are written.) You can read more about these monastic martyrs here, or in the wonderful film Of Gods and Men.

All Saints Day

The earliest celebration of something akin to All Saints Day had the specific purpose of honoring those who were martyred for their Christian faith. As early as the beginning of the 4th century, Christians set aside a day to honor these martyrs, though they usually did so in the spring, and often in conjunction with the season of Easter and Pentecost.

By the year 800, Bishops from modern-day England (Alcuin of York) and Austria (Arno of Salzburg) noted their celebration of All Saints Day on November 1st. Within a century or so, the Church of Rome universalized that date, which most western churches still recognize today.

As the Christian faith became increasingly legalized throughout Western civilization, the church began to expand its honoring of martyrs to include all those who lived as faithful witnesses in their various contexts. (The word martyr, though generally reserved for those who have died for their faith, simply comes from the Greek word for witness. To die for Christ is a bold witness to the Gospel, but so is living for Christ.)

Since many “famous” saints have their own days of commemoration throughout the Church Year, it is common for All Saints Day to be a recognition of the relatively unknown and even unnamed saints throughout the ages.

A Collect for All Saints Day

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

All Souls Day

All Souls Day (November 2) follows All Saints Day, and shares a common theme of honoring and following the examples of those Christians who have gone before us.

But All Souls Day is more specifically a commemoration of all the faithful departed—not just those recognized formally or informally as saints—with a special emphasis on those whom we have lost in the past year.

Many Christian traditions continue to offer prayers for the dead, a practice that dates back to the earliest centuries of the Church. These prayers are not attempts at overriding the will of those who have passed, nor are they aimed at coercing God to act in a manner outside of his nature. Rather, these prayers are a means of expressing to God our love for those who have died, and of seeking to follow their Christian example in our own lives before we meet again in the life to come.

The Book of Common Prayer contains a short catechism, and I find its answer about why we might honor or pray for the departed to be worth considering, whether or not doing so is a regular practice of yours.

Q. Why do we pray for the dead?

A. We pray for them, because we still hold them in our love, and because we trust that in God's presence those who have chosen to serve him will grow in his love, until they see him as he is.

Below are a two examples of such prayers, taken from a liturgy for burials in the Book of Common Prayer.

Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to you our brother (sister) N., who was reborn by water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism. Grant that his death may recall to us your victory over death, and be an occasion for us to renew our trust in your Father's love. Give us, we pray, the faith to follow where you have led the way; and where you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, to the ages of ages. Amen.

Father of all, we pray to you for N., and for all those whom we love but see no longer. Grant to them eternal rest. Let light perpetual shine upon them. May his soul and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

Habit to Adopt

Make a list of names of those whose passing has impacted you in the past year. For those who come to mind, you may find it helpful to also write a brief note about the example they have set for you in Christ.

On these two Holy Days, make time to thank God for their life, and pray that their examples may live on in your own. You can spend time praying spontaneously, or you could consider using one or more of the prayers above as a guide.