All Souls’ Day — 2 November 2017
Trinity – 12:15 pm
Wisdom 3:1-9 | Psalm 116:10-17 | 1 Corinthians 15:50-58 | John 5:24-27
The celebration of the Communion of Saints – living and departed – in one form or another, at one time of year or another, goes back a very long way in the history of the Church, back into the early days. In the New Testament, and in the earliest days of the Church, the “saints” – that is, God’s holy ones, God’s holy people – meant all faithful Christians, including you and me. But over the years the celebration came to focus on the extraordinary saints, the heroes of the faith, especially the martyrs. But we ordinary folks, and particularly our departed family and friends, seemed to get left out. Except that we didn’t, really, because it has been a custom among peoples all over the world to have some annual celebration or remembrance of our dead ancestors.
The Church, of course, developed and scheduled Holy Days to compete with and to absorb pre-Christian festivals – a classic example being the setting of the observance of the birth of Jesus – about whose actual birthday we have absolutely no idea at all – at the time of the celebration of the winter solstice. And of course All Saints’ Day came to be observed in the medieval Western Church – apparently originally in Ireland – at the season in which departed family were remembered. (For example, Dia de los Muertos in Mexico and elsewhere in the Americas.) This settled into a three-day sequence, centering on All Saints’ Day (November 1), preceded by All Hallows’ Eve (Hallowe’en) and followed by All Souls’ Day, focusing on those “ordinary folks” who we had forgotten were also saints.
Meanwhile, under the influence of some of the less healthy aspects of the theology of St. Augustine, the concern grew that since human beings are all rotten to the core and on our way in handbaskets to hell, All Souls’ Day became a day of moaning and whining, with black as the liturgical color and the chanting of the funeral hymn Dies irae (“Day of wrath, O day of mourning”), perhaps especially known through musical compositions by Mozart and Verdi, though Gabriel Fauré declined to set that text in his Requiem Mass. All of this degenerated into a system of attempts to pray or buy Grandma’s soul out of purgatory, resulting ultimately in the sale of papal indulgences, which finally led the German priest Martin Luther to say “Enough!” and to challenge the whole corrupt system, five hundred years ago this past Tuesday.
Protestantism on the whole dumped the All Souls’ Day business, considering it irretrievable. Some Reformed churches dumped All Saints’ Day as well. Anglicans, naturally, waffled, at least until modern times. But folk religion is not always wrong, and our desire to remember and pray for our departed family and friends has a legitimate place in our spirituality and worship. Not because they need us to cajole God to let them through the pearly gates, but because we love them and therefore we pray for them. And they, being with God, pray for us.
And so we celebrate All Souls’ Day today, now as an extension, as it were, of All Saints’ Day, so we can focus in our prayers and remembrance upon our own saints, our parish, our friends, and our families.