All Saints Day

Week of Monday, October 29, 2001

Do you celebrate Halloween? Some Christians don't, thinking it is grossly pagan. Our family always celebrates. We carve pumpkins, encourage costumes that are more goofy than ghoulish, then set out door-to-door, sometimes with our dog in tow, to haul in the treats. But here is a curious historical coincidence to consider as a Christian.

If you are a Protestant, it is likely that this week you will devote at least some time to the pagan holiday of Halloween, a celebration that originated in pre-Christian Gaul and Britain with the Druids, who thought that on October 31 the ghosts and goblins would be especially active. Conversely, you will probably spend little or no time at all celebrating a quintessentially Christian festival, All Saints Day, the very next day on November 1. Here we Protestants would do well to take a page from our Catholic and Orthodox friends who do indeed celebrate the saints.

During the first three hundred years of the church Christians suffered considerably (see Nero essay), and as one might expect, believers celebrated their great leaders, heroes and especially martyrs of the faith. Churches were named after saints, relics were collected and honored, the dates of their death were commemorated, and perhaps a special communion service was even held at their tomb. Eventually, churches were even built on their tombs. Later, the church thought that all believers who had died, and not just famous saints, should rightly be commemorated, and thus arose what we now call All Saints Day. Originally celebrated on May 13, in the year 835 it was moved to November 1.

We Protestants get nervous about the saints for a number of reasons, chief of which is the propensity to the pagan superstitions that developed among the popular devotion of the common people. In Luther's Wittenberg, for example, prince Frederick the Wise had an extraordinary cache of sacred relics. An illustrated catalog by Lucas Cranach (1509) listed 5,005 articles—a tooth from Jerome, three pieces of Mary's cloak, a piece of gold from the three Wise Men, a piece of bread from the Last Supper, a strand from Jesus's beard, and so on. By 1520, says Roland Bainton, the collection of holy bones had grown to 19,013. These vulgar distortions of the Gospel made Luther's blood boil:

What lies there are about relics! One claims to have a feather from the wing of the angel Gabriel, and the Bishop of Mainz has a twig from Moses' burning bush. And how does it happen that eighteen apostles are buried in Germany when Christ had only twelve?
Most galling of all, the church displayed these relics on All Saints Day, and for the proper financial contribution, the pope would reduce your time in purgatory up to 1,902,202 years and 270 days. Of course, we rightly repudiate such flagrant abuses.

Protestants also get nervous about the fuzzy boundary between honoring or respecting the saints, the Virgin Mary and angels, and worshiping them, praying to them for protection, kissing icons of them, and generally approaching them as mediators to God. Idolatry seems to lurk close to the cult of saints. Further, we less liturgically-inclined Christians tend to recoil at the idea that there are some saints who have earned special merit. Rather, we understand every believer to be a saint, saved only by grace (see 1 Corinthians 1:2). That is, we are comfortable with the plural “saints,” which includes all Christians (as in the Apostles' Creed, “I believe in the communion of saints.”), but not the singular “saint” thought to have achieved a unique degree of holiness.

But as often happens, to avoid these pitfalls we can overcompensate and end up throwing out the baby with the bath water. We should not dismiss a practice just because it is abused. Protestants could do a much better job of recognizing the role that the saints should play in our Christian lives, especially for us who in stressing the personal nature of salvation often slide into the individualistic, privatistic, and even narcissistic. We need to see our Christian life and identity in the greater, communal identity of all God's people; there is a social and corporate dimension to our journey with Jesus that should include the saints.

When I consider the saints, both the especially holy like Mother Teresa and the egregiously fallen (choose your own), I am reminded that I have choices to make in my life and that, in the end, these choices have consequences for my spiritual welfare. One aspect of Christian discipleship is imitating not only Christ but the saints. Paul urged his readers to imitate his way of life several times (1 Corinthians 4:16). Hebrews 6:12 likewise commands us to “imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised” (cf. Hebrews 13:7). Other saints, by the choices they have made, have “shipwrecked their faith” (1 Timothy 1:19), and I do well to consider them too.

The saints also encourage me to remember that I am not alone. Rather, I am surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), cheered on to “run with endurance the race that is set before me.” Wherever I find myself on the Christian pilgrimage, in joy or despair, faith or doubt, sin or grace, many believers have gone before me. Some have failed miserably, others have triumphed gloriously. But at the end of the race, whether they ran well or poorly, they finally found ultimate rest in God's grace that knows no boundaries and love which knows no limits.

A favorite hymn of mine by William How (1864) puts the imitation and the consolation of the saints to verse:

For all the saints who from their labor rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blessed,
Alleluia! Alleluia!

O blest communion, fellowship divine.
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

And when the fight is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia! Alleluia.

From earth's wide bounds, from ocean's farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl steams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost,
Alleluia! Alleluia!

So celebrate Halloween, if you like. But by all means celebrate the saints. You can do so by reading the lives of the saints, such as the classic accounts of The Martyrdom of Polycarp or The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, both of which are short enough to read at a single sitting. Better yet, find a fellow saint and share your own journey with Jesus, encouraging one another to love and good works (1 Thessalonians 5:11, Hebrews 10:24).

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.