Remembering All Saints

November 1 is designated as All Saints’ Day on the Christian calendar every year. This year, we’ll be observing it in worship this Sunday, November 4. But what is All Saints’ Day?

In the early years of the Christian church, during the time of Roman persecution of Christianity, saint’s days were established to mark the date of a martyr’s death. As you may remember me saying before, the word “martyr” comes from the Greek word “to witness.” So a martyr is someone who bears witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. However, in the early church it came to be associated with being killed for your faith, because when Christianity was illegal and you witnessed to your faith, the Romans could and did kill Christians for taking that stance. Particularly notable martyrs had the day of their death designated by the Church as a “saint’s day,” with the theological understanding that it was also their “birthday” as a saint being welcomed into heaven.

A saint, then, came to be understood as a remarkably faithful martyr, often with miraculous elements to their story. Saint Sebastian, for example, was killed for his faith under Emperor Diocletian and is easily recognizable in art because he’s always depicted as tied to a tree and shot full of arrows. Ironically, the story is that he miraculously didn’t die from those arrow wounds, but was merely left for dead and subsequently healed by a fellow Christian. He then sought out the Emperor and berated him for persecuting Christians; the Emperor ordered him clubbed to death instead (since his archers couldn’t get the job done the first time). As a friend of mine likes to say, if you like action movies, then you should really read the lives of the saints!

In the Reformed theological tradition, from which Presbyterians come, saints are understood very differently, though. For us, a saint is not someone who died for their faith in remarkable ways, but rather someone who lived out their faith in the very everyday-ness of a normal life. That’s why it is the day in which we remember all those from our congregation who have died in the past year; it is a recognition that each and every one of those people is a Christian saint by virtue of their baptism and the life of faith that they lived. So we will have a special Liturgy of Remembrance in the worship services this Sunday, in which we remember by name each saint who was part of First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem in their life on this earth. And we will then take Communion together “with all the faithful of every time and place,” as the Eucharistic Prayer says, bound with those whom we have just named and all those who went before them in faith through the power of the Holy Spirit.

As you can see, this Sunday will be an important and moving worship experience for all; I hope you will be a part of it!

Grace and Peace,