Our contemporary celebrations of Halloween have eclipsed a valuable Christian remembrance that dates back to the early centuries of the church. The celebration was called All Saints’ Day, and is still commemorated at different levels in the Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Eastern Orthodox and Methodist traditions. The word ‘saint’ may remind us of old statues in large cathedrals, or a formal process of declaring past Christians as worthy of commemoration and canonization. But this is not the only definition of the term ‘saint.’ The bible sometimes uses the word to refer to all of those that have put their faith in Christ. For example, when the apostle Paul was writing to a struggling church in Asia Minor, he addressed his letter, “unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called as saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor 1:2). Saints were those that had been spiritually cleansed, morally forgiven, not because their lives were spotless, but because they had decided to follow the One that lived a blameless life on their behalf.
In the context of All Saints’ Day, the term ‘saint’ takes on an additional layer of historic meaning. The origins of All Saints’ Day date back to the early centuries following Christ when the church wanted days to commemorate the martyrs that had been killed for their faith. In the first 300 years after Christ died and was resurrected, the Roman Empire sent several waves of persecution toward the young Christian movement. Leaders were beheaded. Women were fed to wild beasts. Bishops were burned in the Coliseum. And the early church would hold days of remembrance and prayer for these courageous saints. They were their friends, family members and pastors; and they were powerful sources of inspiration. They helped the church hold on to their ostracized faith during difficult days.
By the year 607, when the Roman Empire had astoundingly embraced the obscure faith it once tried to destroy, Emperor Phocas presented the beautiful Pantheon temple to the pope. The enormous statues of Jupiter and other Roman gods were heaved out of the famous building, and the pantheon was dedicated to “All Saints” who had died from Roman persecution in the early years of the Christian church. The date of November 1st was set as the annual commemoration to remember the martyrs of Christ’s Church. The night before All Saints’ Day a prayer vigil was held, and eventually the evening included a remembrance, not just for the martyrs, but for all the loved ones that had died in the faith.
Many pagan customs were eventually absorbed into this celebration of All Saints’ (or hallows’) Eve. People would leave food for the dead at their place of burial. Superstitions of the dead coming back to haunt as witches, toads or demons increased. These ideas, rather than having their roots in Christian belief, were based in the ordinary experience of the fear of death, and concern for the afterlife.
It is obvious in our culture today which side of the celebration has become more prominent. However, for the follower of Christ, it would be wise to glean from the Christian origins of All Saint’s Day as well. The remembrance of the martyrs, and the faithful Christians that have gone before us is as beneficial today as it has even been. We can take a few minutes on November 1st or the Sunday following and attend a worship service. We could open our bible and read Hebrews 11, and remember the great saints that have gone before us. We can pull up a short bio of a Christian martyr, like Christ’s Church has been doing annually for thousands of years. One of my personal, maybe silly, traditions has been to write a short play commemorating a saint from the past, and preforming it with family or friends. Over the years we have remembered in this way Squanto, Joan of Arc, Harriet Tubman, John Wesley, Francis of Assisi, the monks of Iona, and many others. The faithful saints and martyrs before us have left a trail of great courage, and the ultimate sacrifice. We may need that same character forged in us for our day as well. Let us be strengthened by their remembrance.
Together in the journey,
Fr. Cam Lemons