HONORING THE DEAD IN THE LITURGICAL CALENDAR OF THE UNIVERSAL CHURCH

A depiction of all souls
Calling to mind the saints arouses in us above all else a longing to enjoy their company.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153); feast day, August 20th

THE SOLEMNITY OF ALL SAINTS: HALLOWMAS (November 1st)

St. John's vision of the reward of the saints in heaven: After that I saw that there was a huge number, impossible for anyone to count, of people from every nation, race, tribe and language; they were standing in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb, dressed in white robes and holding palms in their hands. They shouted in a loud voice, 'Salvation to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!'  And all the angels who were standing in a circle round the throne, surrounding the elders and the four living creatures, prostrated themselves before the throne, and touched the ground with their foreheads, worshipping God with these words: 'Amen.  Praise and glory and wisdom, thanksgiving and honor and power and strength to our God for ever and ever. Amen.'  One of the elders then spoke and asked me, 'Who are these people, dressed in white robes, and where have they come from?'  I answered him, 'You can tell me, sir.'  Then he said, 'These are the people who have been through the great trial; they have washed their robes white again in the blood of the Lamb.  That is why they are standing in front of God's throne and serve him day and night in his sanctuary; and the One who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.'  Revelation 7:9-15

Those who are "saints" (etym. Latin sanctus = holy, sacred) in the broad use of the definition, are all Christians who, as "holy people," are alive now or were alive in the past, whose lives were transformed by Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:2).  Included in the definition of "saints" are the Old Testament faithful who waited for the coming of the Messiah and received His message of salvation from the grave (1 Peter 3:19-20; 4:6; Matthew 27:52-53).  But those who are honored on the Feast of All Saints are all those who have died, have stood before God's throne of judgment, and have been deemed worthy to enter into the Beatific Vision in the heavenly kingdom.  The saints in heaven are souls who come from every nation, every language, and every ethnic group; and they come from every generation of the Ages of men.  There is only one thing they all have in common.  During their lives on earth, after they embraced Christ as Savior and Lord, they all distinguished themselves through acts of holiness, loving God and extending His love to the men, women, and children with whom they shared their life's journey; each saint exercising faithful obedience to the will of God for their lives. 

The Church recognizes these "holy ones" who live in the presence of God through her ordinary universal teaching authority or by canonization, a solemn definition of sainthood in which the Church officially recognizes that particular person's sanctity and implies that the soul of that person is now in heavenly glory.  With the Church's official recognition, the covenant people are encouraged to emulate the lives of the saint (CCC# 2030), and in prayer, petitions may be made to that saint to pray on behalf of the petitioner who is a member of the earth-bound Church (CCC# 956; 2683). Those holy souls are members of the Church Glorious who now live in the presence of God.

In St. John's vision of heaven in the Book of Revelation, he is privileged to witness the liturgical worship of the saints as they surround the throne of God in the heavenly Sanctuary.  There are some of these holy ones who are known to us by name, but the names of the vast majority of these souls are not known to those of us who are still journeying to our rendezvous with eternal judgment.  Although these older brothers and sisters in faith are not all know to us, we are all known to them and they pray for us, urging us on to "finish the race" and to join the eternal family: With so many witnesses in a great cloud all around us, we too, then, should throw off everything that weighs us down and the sin that clings so closely, and with perseverance keep running in the race which lies ahead of us (Hebrews 12:1).  The saints who are known to us are commemorated on their own feast days when we are encouraged to remember their acts of faith and perseverance. 

The Church began to set aside a particular day in the liturgical calendar to honor all the saints in the 7th century AD when the ancient pagan structure, known as the Roman Pantheon, was converted into a Christian church.  On the day of its dedication, on May 13, c. 608AD, Pope Boniface IV dedicated the new church to the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints.  The remembrance of all saints remained a local spring feast until 731AD, when Pope Gregory III consecrated a new chapel in the Vatican Basilica in honor of All Saints, moving the date of the celebration to begin at sundown on what is our date of October 31st, but which was for the Church the date of November 1st; at that time the Church measured the days from sundown to sundown, which was also the ancient Jewish custom.  However, in the 8th century AD, the observation of the feast of All Saints was still only a local feast of the Church in Rome.

Sometime between 837/844AD, Pope Gregory IV extended the feast of All Saints to the universal Church, keeping the date of the feast as November 1st.  At this time All Saints became a Holy Day of Obligation, set aside as a Solemnity when the Church was called to honor all the saints, including those whose names are not known to us but who continue from their heavenly vantage point to pray for us (CCC# 1169; 1173; 2043; 2180). Our Eastern Rite brothers celebrate the Feast of All Saints on the Sunday after Pentecost.  

It is a mystery why this particular day was chosen in the Latin Rite.  It was at this time of year that pagan peoples in Europe held their harvest festivals and in association with the harvest, celebrations that remembered their pagan dead, like the Celtic celebration of Oiche Shamhna ("end-of-summer night"; pronounced ee-hah how-nay), in later years known simply as SamhainSamhain was an after-harvest festival celebrated with bonfires, and it was at this time, as the Celtic peoples believed, their dead revisited the mortal world.  It was a celebration that the Church vigorously discouraged in the Celtic communities which had embraced Christianity but which most Celtic peoples found difficult to repudiate.  The Church's celebrations of the feasts of All Saints and All Saints became the needed remedy to wean the people from pagan to Christian practices and celebrations in honor of the dead. The celebration of this Mass for English speaking Christians was called the "All Hallowmas" (Etym. Angelo Saxon, halgian, "hallow; from halig, "holy"), meaning the "Mass of the Holy Ones," and the vigil was the Hallow's Eve Mass, from which we get our word "Halloween." 

For whatever reason the date was chosen, the season associated with the fall harvest is the perfect time to remember the dead.  In the season of the harvest, the crop is gathered and placed in storehouses while the useless vines, branches, etc. are burned in big bonfires.  The season is a meaningful symbol the great harvest of souls into God's heavenly storehouse where the wheat (the righteous) will be separated from the chaff (the wicked), as St. John the Baptist warned the people in Matthew 3:12, using the symbolism of the harvest: His [God's] winnowing-fan is in his hand; he will clear his threshing-floor and gather his wheat into his barn; but the chaff he will burn in a fire that will never go out (also see Luke 3:17); and as Jesus illustrated in His parable of the wheat and the weeds in Matthew 13:24-30, the imagery of which He later explained at the Apostle's request in Matthew 13:36-43.  Jesus finished His explanation of the parable with the words:  The Son of man will send his angels and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of falling and all who do evil, and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.  Then the upright will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.  Anyone who has ears should listen!  

The celebration of the Solemnity of All Saints is above all a family celebration.  We think of our departed brothers and sisters who wait at the heavenly banquet table of our Father, they will not start the banquet without us, they are waiting for their younger brothers and sisters in Christ. This is the banquet table of the Communion of Saints.  We are part of this communion when we participate in the Eucharistic celebration of the Catholic Mass and come to the table of the altar, which symbolizes the table of the Last Supper, the sacrificial altar, and the empty tomb.  It is in that moment that heaven and earth are joined in liturgical worship.  St. John witnessed the banquet of God's united family in the Book of Revelation.  What St. John saw was the final banquet that will never end: Then a voice came from the throne; it said, 'Praise our God, you servants of his and those who fear him, small and great alike.'  And I heard what seemed to be the voices of a huge crowd, like the sound of the ocean or the great roar of thunder, answering, 'Alleluia!  The reign of the Lord our God Almighty has begun; let us be glad and joyful and give glory to God, because this is the time for the marriage of the Lamb.  His bride is ready, and she has been able to dress herself in dazzling white linen, because her linen is made of the good deeds of the saints.'  The angel said, 'Write this, "Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding feast of the Lamb,"' and he added, 'These words of God are true' (Revelation 19:5-9).  Our earthly communion table is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet that awaits us if we persevere in faithful obedience (see CCC# 946-62; 1331).

 

THE COMMEMORATION OF ALL THE FAITHFUL DEPARTED:
ALL SOULS (November 2nd)

St. John Chrysostom on praying for the dead: Let us help and commemorate them.  If Job's sons were purified by their father's sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation?  Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them. 
St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD), Homilies on 1 Corinthians, #41.5

On the day after the Solemnity of All Saints, on November 2nd, the Church remembers and prays for the salvation of all who have died.  The remembrance of the dead begins with this commemoration and continues throughout the month of November and into Advent.  The time of year is appropriate for this remembrance since the daylight period of the days is growing shorter and shorter.  The growing darkness of the days should remind us that at an unknown time, without any warning, the "End of Days" will be upon us, as Jesus warned His disciples: If anyone says to you then, "Look, here is the Christ," or "Over here," do not believe it; for false Christs and false prophets will arise and provide great signs and portents, enough to deceive even the elect, if that were possible.  Look!  I have given you warning.  ...because the coming of the Son of man will be like lightning striking in the east and flashing far into the west. [..].  But as far as the day and hour, nobody knows it, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, no one but the Father alone...  So stay awake, because you do not know the day when your master is coming (Matthew 24:23-25, 27, 36).

The Kingdom of Jesus Christ is divided into three parts: The Church Glorious, the Church Militant, and the Church Suffering (CCC# 954).  The Church Glorious is composed of those souls who live in the presence of God in the heavenly Sanctuary.  The Church Militant, also called the "Pilgrim Church," is composed of those of us who continue the struggle against the powers of Satan (Revelation 12:17) as we journey through this world on our way to our true home in the Promised Land of Heaven.  The Church Suffering is composed of those souls who have been judged worthy of salvation but who must endure purification before entering into the Beatific Vision.  On November 2nd, we are asked to remember all the faithful departed souls, including the souls of the Church suffering in Purgatory.  We do not know which souls in their individual judgments (CCC# 1021-22) were judged to be pure and worthy of heaven (# 769, 989, 1038).  Nor do we know who those are who were judged to be saved but who are being purified in Purgatory, being cleansed of the stain of venial sins that went unconfessed, or mortal sins that were forgiven in the Sacrament of Reconciliation but for which accountability is still necessary (CCC#1030-32; 1470; 1472; 1 Corinthians 3:12-15; 1 John 5:16-17).  Finally, we do not know the identity of those souls who have denied the gift of eternal life and have consigned themselves to eternal separation from God (#1033-37; 1861).  Since we do not know, and since we are not qualified to judge the condition of souls, we should persevere in prayer for all the dead (Job 1:5; 2 Maccabees 12:43-46[46]; CCC 1032).

However, remembering the dead should not be a gloomy remembrance.  Who else can afford to laugh at death but the Christian whose Savior has defeated the power of sin and death (Romans 6:9-13; 8:38; 1 Corinthians 15:54; Hebrews 2:14-15)?  The North American holiday, Halloween, essentially mocks death and those aspects of death that frighten us.  The holiday has its origins in the Celtic celebration of the dead after the fall harvest that later developed into the English Christian custom, introduced in the Middle Ages, of people going from house to house begging for "soul cakes" during the remembrance of All Souls' Day.  The celebration of All Souls' and the practice of "begging" for soul cakes persisted in Britain until the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century put an end to Catholic customs, but it continued in northern England until as late as the 1930s.   Our Halloween custom of giving and receiving treats probably stems from this ancient English tradition on All Souls' Day.  As the people went from door to door, the celebrants sang: "Soul, soul, soul cake!  Please, good people, a soul cake!  One for Peter, two for Paul, three for God who made us all" (The Companion to the Calendar, page 163). 

Both the feast days of All Saints and All Souls come at the close of the liturgical year, a reminder that we are in the last days of the Ages of men and that the next Age will be launched with the Second Advent of Christ and the Resurrection of the dead (CCC# 366; 999-1001; 1038), followed by the Final Judgment (CCC# 1038-41). At this season of the year, the liturgical readings have the unifying theme of the End of Days and Divine Judgment.  All of these "signs" should serve to remind us that this world is passing away to make way, in the Second Advent of Jesus Christ, for the new heaven and the new earth when Christ rules over His united Kingdom for eternity (Romans 8:19-23; Revelation 21:1, 5; CCC# 1042-1050).  The observance of these feast days should also serve to remind us that all Christians, both the living and the dead, are one Body in Christ (CCC# 787-96; 805).  Since we are united in the Body of Christ, our good works on earth can be a blessing to those who have died in Christ, just as their love and prayers are a blessing for those of us still making our journey through the wilderness of this life on our way to the Promised Land of heaven (CCC# 956; 1475; 2006-11).

Michal Hunt, Copyright © On the Solemnity of All Souls, November 1st, 2008 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.

Resources:

  1. Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997.
  2. Companion to the Calendar, Mary Ellen Hynes, Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1993.
  3. Lives of the Saints, Fr. Hugo Hoever, S.O.Cist., PhD., Catholic Book Publishing Company, New Your, 1955; revised 1993.
  4. Mapping Time: The Calendar and its History, E. G. Richards, Oxford University Press, 1998, reprinted 2005.
  5. New Jerusalem Study Bible, Doubleday, 1985.
  6. New Webster's International Dictionary, vol. I, Grolier, 1969.