Christian holidays help us to remember important things in our history. We remember the lives of great men and women who have gone before us. There are holidays to remember different stories in the life of Christ, to help us understand the mission of the church, to remind us of great Christians, and to remember important days in Christian history.
Two such holidays happen in the beginning of November. All Saints Day and All Souls Day are on November 1st and November 2nd respectively. They both remind us of a host of Christians past, but they each have a difference emphasis. In many churches, we combine the two themes into one day, but it means we lose a little of each one in the process. Let’s look at the history and practice of both days to see how what role they were intended to play in our Christian lives.
Christian holidays never spring fully formed from the mind of some Christian leader. They often begin as a local or regional celebration which grows and changes as Christians celebrate it more and more. This is true for both of these days.
Before we get to the true histories of these two days, we need to address a common misunderstanding about the two holidays. The Christian church did not choose November 1st to “baptize” a pagan holiday.
We explain these arguments in a previous article on this blog, so this article won’t go into the details. Here’s a quick summary. The November 1st celebrations did not come from the region where Samhain was supposedly celebrated. We don’t even have records that Samhain was truly celebrated the way modern pagans claim.
According to Catholic Straight Answers , All Saints Day started just after the Roman Empire legalized Christianity in 313 AD. Both St. Ephram, died in 370 AD, and St. John Chrysostom, died in 407 AD, reference this kind of celebration in their preaching. Many churches began celebrating a common day for multiple saints. Following the persecution under Emperor Diocletian, there were hosts of martyrs that each church wanted to remember and to celebrate. There were, however, too many martyrs for each to have it’s own day. So, they used one common celebration to remember everyone they missed.
Different cities celebrated it on different days. Edessa once celebrated in on May 13th. Others celebrated it the week after Easter. Antioch remembered them on the first Sunday after Pentecost.
As the Christian church became more organized and unified in practice, they regularized holidays across the church. November 1st became the assigned day under Pope Gregory IV, who reigned from 827 AD to 824 AD, and we’ve celebrated it that way since.
The theme of All Saints Day, then, is not every Christian who ever died. Instead, we remember the witness of the martyrs. They held true to Christ even to the point of death. Their stories deserve to be remembered.
The church began celebrating All Souls Day as a way to remember every Christian who has ever died. Just like All Saints Day, All Souls Day developed over time. At first, they celebrated it on different days. Some did it near the Easter season, while others celebrated it after the day of Pentecost. Between 998 AD and 1030 AD, St. Odilo of cluny ordered that all the monks in his monasteries celebrate it on November 2nd. Soon that commemoration spread to the whole church.
It started out of the Roman Catholic system of merit and purgatory. They believed that most Christians went to purgatory after they died. Supposedly, Christians needed to be purged before they could enter heaven. They also believed that our prayers and efforts could affect how long their souls remained there.
So, All Souls Day became a day to remember the dead and to offer up prayers and indulgences for them. Protestants, however, don’t believe in purgatory, since it denies the all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus on the cross to forgive our sins. So, when Protestants celebrate All Souls Day, it becomes a day to remember all of the Christian dead, but especially our lost loved ones.
It’s also a day to remember the communion of the saints, which is the unity that the whole church has in Jesus Christ. Since the church is the body of Christ, and all Christians are in him, that means the church in heaven and the church on earth are all united in him. In Christ, we have communion with each other.
We can see how the two holidays could be conflated. First, protestants often state that all Christians are saints in Christ. Every Christian is holy by the grace won for us by Jesus on the cross. There is, then, no distinction between the most famous Christians and the rest of us.
Second, American churches don’t typically celebrate these holidays separately. If you have trouble getting people to come to worship on just one special day, you’re certainly not going to get them to come on two days in a row. So, they mash the two together into one celebration, usually on the Sunday before or after.
We should distinguish the two, because each day has a different theme. All Saints Day reminds us of the martyrs. We tell their stories to help us bravely remain true when we face persecution or rejection because of the faith. When we consider that many Christians died rather than deny the faith, it can spur us to remain brave when we might face social rejection for ours.
All Souls Day reminds us of the faithful departed. Christians need a way to remember the dead, especially the ones we still mourn. Many churches will read the names of their members who have died, giving thanks for the grace that God gave them in life. All Saints also gives us a day to remember the communion of the saints. We should celebrate the unity we have in Christ so we understand that there is no distinction. We are all one in him.
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