When the Byzantine Emperor Leo V (866-911) wanted to dedicate a church to his recently deceased and godly wife, the Patriarch denied this requested. Consequently, he dedicated it to “all saints” which, he assumed, would include his wife. Thus was born the Eastern festival celebration of “all saints” on the first Sunday after Pentecost.
In the West the origin of “All Saints” day is Pope Boniface V’s dedication of the Roman Pantheon (“all gods”) as a church dedicated to the Mary and the martyrs on May 13, 610 (which was the date of a pagan festival regarding the dead). The date was moved to November 1 by Pope Gregory III (731-741) and expanded to include “all saints.”
I am no expert on the history of “All Saints Day.” In fact, my acquaintance is fairly superficial.
I am not particularly enamoured with asking dead saints to pray or intercede for me, though I do not rule that out and God knows I can certainly use all the intercessors I can get. But here is what I particularly enjoy about “All Saints Day.”
The day is rooted theologically in the communion of the saints, all the saints, everywhere–“in heaven and on earth.” The festival reminds us that when we assemble as the body of Christ on earth, we assemble with the saints “in heaven.” We join their heavenly praise of God and the Lamb as depicted in Revelation 5 and we participate in the glorious joy of the saints that surround the throne of God.
We are not alone. We cannot see behind the veil, but John did in Revelation 7:9ff–which is one of the lectionary texts for All Saints Day. We are surrounded by witnesses according to Hebrews 12–another one of the lectionary texts for All Saints Day.
I find great joy, comfort and peace in this reality–and it is real to me. It is a moment when I share again the praise of God with my father, my first wife, my son, and many others I could name whose presence I miss.
All Saints Day is a day to focus on this eternal communion between the saints through their communion with the Triune God. Called by the Father, redeemed by the Son and empowered by the Spirit we too stand in the presence of glory with the saints who have gone before.
All Saints Day is a day to rejoice, a day to remember (much like “Memorial Day” for our veterans), and a day to participate in the doxology of the heavenly throne room. Instead of debunking it or ignoring it, let us embrace the theological reality upon which it is based.
Let us join together this Sunday with saints all over the world and with all the saints in the heavenly throne room to praise the God who has loved us, redeemed us and is transforming us that we might fully become the image of the Son and his Father.