Once again, we are approaching All Saints Day. It one of the oldest feasts celebrated by Christians; even in a divided Christianity, Catholics, Orthodox and many Protestants observe the feast. (Some such as the Orthodox, however, celebrate it on a different day, namely the Sunday after Pentecost.) It is also one of the most complicated observances, rooted in deep, ancient theology while also often being surrounded by a type of folk piety. In many places it has unfortunately also become inextricably linked to the Eve of All Hallows, i.e. Halloween.
The communion of saints is an ancient belief in Christianity. It is mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed, as well as the Nicaean Creed. Although the word “saint” has become a title with an extremely limited meaning, that was not always the case. In modern parlance especially among Catholic Christians a saint is someone who has been “canonized,” “raised to the altar,” provided with a feast or at least a memorial day. In the New Testament and especially the letters of Paul, the word saint is used to refer to all Christian believers. In the opening of both his letters to the Corinthians as well as the opening of the letters to the Romans, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians he addresses his letters to “the saints who are in” the particular location receiving the letter.
This is clearly the earliest meaning of the term and the one understood in the creeds. As such, this earliest understanding of “the saints” is closely linked to Paul’s theology of the Body of Christ. Sometimes using surprisingly concrete terms (1 Cor 12:15-26; Eph 4:16; Col 2:19), Paul sees all believers united — almost organically — into the Body of Christ. It is a unity which transcends cultures, gender, nationalities (Gal 3:28) and even death itself. Baptism accomplishes a radical unity between the believer and Christ and through Christ to all other believers, living and dead.
During the time of the persecutions, the martyrs became the believers par excellence. Their faith and their sacrifice were understandably seen as exemplary and worthy of imitation. They were the most prominent of the “saints” but most definitely not the only saints.
Over the centuries, as the cult of the saints developed, the meaning of the word “saint” become more and more restricted and, hence, exclusive. To most Catholics in the modern world, a “saint” is one who has been canonized, gone through the steps of being a “servant of God,
“blessed” and finally “saint.” A saint is one to whom a certain number of miracles has been attributed and who has been given a “feast day” on the liturgical calendar. This causes several complications. It was not long before the number of saints was larger than the number of liturgically “open” days in a year, resulting in a sort of liturgical traffic jam. In addition, every inflation runs the risk of a concomitant devaluation.
As a result, in popular piety and imagination, All Saints’ Day solved the problem. It became the liturgical observance of et alii, “the rest.” Even at that, it did not have the spiritual breadth and depth of the notion of “saint” in the New Testament and earliest church — and so, All Souls Day was instituted. In some cultures, All Souls’ Day, the day of the dead, is far more popular than All Saints Day.
This development is, I believe, unfortunate. It has led to a weakening of the notion of the Body of Christ, which is sometimes referred to as “mystical.” Paul never refers to the Body of Christ as “mystical.” For him it is a radically concrete reality. It is what holds everything together and involves every single believer. Like so much in the Gospels it is also a challenge—and a challenge which Paul clearly articulates. If we are all “the saints,” all members of the Body of Christ, then we are responsible for each other in a radical way. “God has composed the body so that…each part may be equally concerned for all the others. If one part hurts, all the parts share its pain…(1 Cor 12:24-26).
If All Saints Day becomes little more than the catch-all for all those “saints” who didn’t make the liturgical calendar (or the “forgotten canonized”), that is an impoverishment of the theology of the Body of Christ and the communion of saints.
All Saints Day is most emphatically not the Feast of Honorable Mention. It is, rather, the day on which we recall and strengthen our belief in the radical unity we all share with the Risen Christ and with each other. We are not merely “not alone;” we are intimately united with the entire Body of Christ. That, however, brings with it a challenge. The observance of all Saints Day reminds us that, as members of the one Body of Christ we simply cannot be indifferent to the other members of the body. To ignore or despise or to be indifferent to a fellow “saint” because of gender, culture, race, etc. is an attack on the very Body of Christ itself and injures all of us. It is incompatible with being one of the saints.
It is CNEWA’s commitment to our membership in the Body of Christ which impels us to serve and help all the members of Christ’s Body — wherever they may be and whatever their need may be.