For Nov. 2, 2014: All Saints’ Day, Year A

The Reading                                                                 Revelation 7:9-17

For All Saints’ Day, the first reading comes not from the Old Testament but from the book of Revelation, John’s mystical vision in which he tries to describe what we mortals cannot begin to comprehend. What is wondrously clear, though, is that, in Revelation, the way is open to all of God’s children.

The Response                                                              Psalm 34:1-10, 22

Unlike many psalms, Psalm 34 is addressed not to the Lord but to the Lord’s people.

The Epistle                                                                     1 John 3:1-3

The first letter of John brings back into this world the promise that Revelation gives—and the challenge it issues to live as sacrificially as our big brother in the faith, Jesus. But if we are God’s children here and now, how on earth shall we live into that?

The Gospel                                                                     Matthew 5:1-12

The gospel reading from Matthew 5:1-12 is called the Beatitudes: in Latin, verses 2 through 11 begin with Beati sunt. The Greek word that Beati sunt translates is Μακάριοι—which, some authorities suggest, is better translated, given the culture of the time, as ‘How honorable’.

 

Further thoughts

The observance of All Saints’ Day began as a day to remember Christian martyrs en masse, once the Roman persecutions under Diocletian had made too many martyrs to remember individually. The day was originally in the spring, near the time of a Roman festival of the dead (Lemuralia), but in the mid-8th century Pope Gregory III moved it to November 1, one day after the Celtic festival of Samhain, and changed its focus from martyrs to recognized saints. In Old English the day was ealra hālgena mæssedæg or ‘mass-day of all the holy ones’; in Middle English this became al halwes ‘All Hallows’ or Hallowmas.

Not even in Roman times were all Christians martyrs or official saints, of course. In 998 Odilo of Cluny ordered his Benedictine monasteries to observe November 2 as commemoratio omnium fidelium defunctorum ‘commemoration of all the faithful dead’ to remember monks who had died; soon the Church adopted the practice, and almost as soon it was called dies animarum or festa animarum ‘day or festival of souls’. According to Mary Reed Newland’s charming comments on All Hallow’s Eve, in Brittany people kept vigil in prayer for all the dead—but not on Nov. 1, that being a feast day, so the vigil was shifted to October 31.

Roman Catholics pray for the dead partly to reduce the time they must spend in Purgatory before they are pure enough for heaven. The doctrine of Purgatory, or to be precise the abuses associated with the Church’s sale of indulgences, helped motivate the Protestant Reformation, and it is for this reason that the feast of All Souls was dropped from Books of Common Prayer from the English original in 1549 through the American version of 1928, and All Saints’ Day extended to include the everyday sort of saint celebrated in the children’s hymn “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God”. In the 1979 American Book of Common Prayer, however, though no readings are specified, the calendar for November 2 shows the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed. For its part, the Church of England’s Common Worship liturgy series restores the day as All Souls’ Day. I think the Church of England’s version suits the All Saints readings very well. I don’t know exactly whom to rule out of the multitude that Revelation 7:9 describes, so it’s doubtless better that I don’t and that, rather, I focus on following the call to love and serve, to give mercy and to make peace, and to worry less about my own dignity than about everyone else’s.

As Ezekiel 18:4, has it, “Behold, all souls are mine, saith the Lord.” What if, as Christians dealing not only with those we find lovable but with those we don’t, we start by taking Ezekiel very, very literally?

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