We are trav’ling in the footsteps
Of those who’ve gone before,
And we’ll all be reunited,
On a new and sunlit shore,
Oh, when the saints go marching in
Oh, when the saints go marching in
Lord, how I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in
The old spiritual paints a glorious picture. It is a celebration of a saint marching through the Pearly Gates into heaven and the longing of a singer to be counted among their number when they die. It’s a traditional funeral dirge that has its roots in an old American spiritual but its exact age is unknown. Today, it’s most closely associated with the city of New Orleans. It was (and is) traditionally played as a dirge, slowly, as a body is taken to a cemetery and then played with festivity on the way back. I like happy funerals. In the kingdom of heaven, death can be swallowed up in some semblance of victory even if a body remains lifeless. The ultimate victory, of course, comes at Christ’s return.
Today is All Saint’s Day according to the Catholic and Anglican church calendars. It’s one of the holiest feast days of the year. Being a student of church history (I believe the past helps explain the present and gives us a course for the future), I’m fascinated by the origins of things. Where did this tradition come from? Why do we do that? How did this holiday come to be? So, what is All Saints Day and why do so many celebrate it?
After doing some research on the Catholic encyclopedia and my other www sources, here you go.
What we know as All Saints Day originally was a localized observance of the death of martyrs that took place in the late spring. In the first three hundred years of the Church, believers “were accustomed to solemnize the anniversary of a martyr’s death for Christ at the place of the martyrdom (newadvent.org).” The early church held martyrs in very high regard and, as early as the third and fourth generations of Christians, sought to preserve and protect the bodies of those killed for their faith. The bones of martyrs became holy objects. On some occasions in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries, many Christians were killed on the same days and those days became special observances of the Church.
But with so many people dying before Constantine leading to so many days of observance, the Church in Rome decided to combine all its observance days into one holy day. In the 700’s Gregory III, bishop of Rome and Pope, christened a new chapel honoring the martyrs and fixed the feast date on November 1st. By the late 800’s the observance occurred across the Western Empire. However, the Eastern Church did not accept the date and continued to celebrate “All Saints Sunday” on the Sunday after Pentecost. It is still this way today with Greek and Russian Orthodox churches.
After the Roman and Eastern Churches split in the 900s, attending services (mass) on All Saints Day became an obligation across the Western Church. In some countries, November 1st is a national holiday and people are “encouraged” to attend mass. Originally, martyrs and John the Baptist were the only ones celebrated on All Saints Day. But as the process developed to canonize Saints (with a capital “S”) they were gradually added to the observance list. When the Reformation happened in the 1500’s, one of the old church holidays kept by the new Anglican and Lutheran churches was All Saints Day. It can also be found observed in the Methodist and Wesleyan churches. However, in the Protestant churches all who have fallen asleep in Christ are remembered, if not on Nov. 1st, then on the closest Sunday to it.
Evangelical churches do not celebrate All Saints Day.
So there’s your church history lesson. I personally observe All Saints Day with a prayer and time of remembrance. I have been affected by the saints of old — capital S and lowercase S — as I study church history and the lives of those who have come before me. While we don’t always share the same view on theology or church practice, I can learn so much from their lives of devotion to God and faith under duress. From St. Athanasius (300’s) I learn to keep fighting for truth even when the tide is against me, from St. Nicholas (300’s) I learn how to give without seeking reward, from St. Augustine I learn to believe first, then seek understanding, and from St. Francis I learn to praise the God of Creation and to live the gospel even when I’m not speaking. As for the martyrs, I’m proud of those who did not recant their faith when staring at the edge of a sword or the mouth of a lion. I look forward to meeting them and patting them on the back.
Happy All Saints Day, my friends. Let us learn from those who came before us and, if found worthy, follow their examples of faith.