The Episcopal Church dictionary gives the bare bones description of All Saints’ Day: Commemorates all saints, known and unknown, on Nov. 1. All Saints’ Day is one of the seven principal feasts of the church year, and one of the four days recommended for the administration of baptism. All Saints’ Day may also be celebrated on the Sunday following Nov. 1.
The readings and collect for the day can be found here.
But for everyday Christians, what does it mean? For some denominations, such as Catholics, the day is reserved for celebrating those who have been officially canonized by the church as saints due to their supreme piety and courage. It is a fun day to learn the stories of these heroes and heroines of the faith.
For other denominations, such as Lutherans, all followers of Jesus are made saints through baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection. “Sainthood” is not something you earn, but something that God bestows upon you. Luther said that all people are “simul justus et peccator,” or “simultaneously saints and sinners.”
Those within the Episcopal Church can take either view. Some celebrate all the baptized on All Saints’ Day. Some highlight the named saints on November 1 and then all the faithful departed on November 2, which is known as All Souls’ Day. You can celebrate however you’d like!
One of the things that always struck me when we lived in Okinawa were the family altars in people’s homes and the idea of ancestor worship. It was a very respectful way to keep memories at the forefront, and the stories told built family and community pride. I also observed that people were comforted knowing that when they died, they would be remembered and not forgotten by their families.
Christians do not worship their ancestors as gods or beings with power over the present day, but we also can remember our ancestors as a way to show respect and demonstrate that a person’s life has meaning that continues beyond his/her earthly body. This too is comforting and strengthens our sense of identity and belonging. It is also biblical, as we are told more than once that we are surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses” and that the saints (and martyrs) are gathered around the throne of God in the end of days.
More thoughts on the theology of this celebration can be found in articles such as this one.
In some Latinx communities, many of which are Catholic, All Souls’ Day is celebrated by setting up an altar (ofrenda) with pictures and mementos of deceased family members. There are a number of fun stories and traditions built around this remembrance (if you’ve seen the movie Coco, you might know some of these traditions!).
Here at St. Paul’s, we will set up an ofrenda in our worship space as a way of literally “making space” to remember and honor our faithful loved ones who have gone before us. They have shaped our faith and our lives, provided light for us, and their love lives on in us. Please bring a picture or other symbol to worship with you on Sunday and place it on our altar. Light a candle for each person you remember, and hold them in your hearts as you worship.