An article by Dr. Matthew Burger on the importance and place of All Saints Day in Christian worship and the Church Year. Dr. Burger is a member of the parish of New Creation and has served in catechesis and liturgical care /planning in the parish.
What is All Saints Day?
All Saints Day is part of a three-day feast in the Western church known as Hallowtide that includes All Hallows Eve (October 31st), All Saints Day (November 1st), and All Souls Day (November 2nd), in which the church remembers the spiritual union in Christ between the “church triumphant” in heaven and the “church militant” on earth.
Should We Celebrate It?
After the Reformation, differences over the use of the term “saints” (which were tied to broader debates regarding justification and sanctification) obscured the festival for many Protestants. Roman and Eastern Orthodox Christians have tended to apply the term “saints” primarily to all faithfully departed Christians who have entered heaven, but particularly to those who demonstrated extraordinary piety in this life. In contrast, Reformation churches, including Anglicans, have insisted that all who are in Christ living and dead are “saints” by virtue of God’s free gift of justification by grace through faith; a position supported by church history and the biblical text (Acts. 9:13, Acts 9:32, Acts 26:10, Romans 1:7, Romans 12:13, Romans 16:15, 2 Corinthians 1:1, 2 Corinthians 13:13, Ephesians 1:1, Philippians 1:1, Philippians 4:21-22, Colossians 1:2, 1 Timothy 6:10, Hebrews 13:24). However, unlike more radical elements of the Reformation, Anglicans, along with the historic church, have not had a knee jerk reaction against concurrently using the term “saints” as a moniker for those whose faith and godly life have encouraged believers throughout the ages.
How Does It Bless Us & Help Us?
All Saints Day therefore reminds us of the deep joy and hope that we confess the in Apostle’s Creed when we say, “I believe in…the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrections of the body, and the life everlasting.” At every moment we are united by Christ in communion with forgiven sinners with whom we share a common hope in the consummation of Christ’s kingdom by his second coming, the resurrection of our bodies, and the restoration of a physical new heaven and new earth, wherein we will enjoy eternal rest. This reality checks the hubris of our sinful nature which would elevate our wisdom and the wisdom of our present age above the faith once delivered to the saints and believed in every age of the church.
The writer to the Hebrews (12:1) refers to those who have died with faith in Christ for the forgiveness of their sins as a “great cloud of witnesses.” Not only are we reminded by this that God faithfully preserved them in that faith until the end providing the encouragement that He will do the same for us, but Christians have also traditionally believed that this indicates that our departed brothers and sisters are also in prayer on our behalf so that we might finish “the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” (Hebrews 12:1-2) This does not mean that we pray to the saints who because of some special merit have achieved greater access to God. Article XXII calls this “a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.” Rather, it is an encouragement that those who have died in the faith cheer us on towards the finish line.
Finally, All Saints Day is a reminder that we who were born by nature hating God, our very Creator, have through the water and word of Holy Baptism been born again as saints in Christ’s church. On this side of death we are simul Justus et peccator (i.e. simultaneously saint and sinner), declared a saint in God’s eyes because of Christ’s death on the cross. Yet the gift of our justification carries with it the promise of our sanctification and ultimately our glorification, when like the saints in heaven, the legal reality of our righteousness in Christ will align with the Holy Spirit’s completed transformation of our nature into one of perfect holiness. And so, we long for the day when we will no longer cry with St. Paul, “O who will deliver me from this body of [sin] and death” (Romans 7:24), concurrently rejoicing that God in Christ has defeated both sin and death forever.