The arrival in the Christian Year of All Saints’ & All Souls’ (November 1 & 2) not only causes the devout to think of the Christian Hope but also of how to relate to & keep these two days (and Hallow-een which is associated) and to examine the biblical and church use of the two key words “saint” and “soul.”
Both All Saints & All Souls were fixed Days in the Western Calendar by AD 1000 and the fact that they were put together reveals that they were seen as being closely related.
All Saints' with its Gospel as Matthew 5, the Beatitudes, emphasizes the presence of holy men and women in the Church of God on earth and presents them as Christians to emulate, and follow as pilgrims, in this world on their way to heaven. Also the multitude of departed faithful, holy Christians who have gone before us is presented as a source of inspiration & example – see the Epistle from Revelation 7 & the BCP Collect for the Day. Therefore a day of rejoicing, hope and consecration.
All Souls begins with the Introit, “Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord: and let light perpetual shine upon them.” In the three Collects of the Day in the Western Church there is prayer for the remission of the sins of the departed and that they may enjoy eternal life with Christ in glory. The Gospel is from John 5:25ff which speaks of the hope of resurrection unto everlasting life. Therefore a day of intercession and hope.
While the BCP (1662 & USA 1928) requires the keeping of All Saints and provides Collect, Epistle & Gospel, it does not mention All Souls. The reason is because of the excessive abuse of masses for the dead in the late medieval period and the decision of the Reformers to cut them out completely from the life of the reformed Catholic Church of England (See Articles of Religion xxxi). Yet, what was removed in the sixteenth century, has officially returned in the twentieth century for provision is made for All Souls’ Day in the new Prayer Books (e.g., the Common Worship of the C of E ). Previously, the Day was kept especially by Anglo-Catholics and they used the Collect, Epistle and Gospel from the old Roman Mass.
How we evaluate these days and the way in which we relate to them and keep them is much dependent upon what provision is made in our parish, as well as what is our doctrine of the Christian Hope.
If we follow the central Protestant tradition and think of the Church as Militant here on earth and Triumphant in heaven, and view the death of the believer who is justified by faith as a promotion from the one to the other then we see no need for All Souls’ Day. All the elect are at death perfected and cleansed so that they can be with Christ in glory awaiting the full redemption of their bodies at the Final Judgment. So All Saints Day is a celebration of those who are called to be saints on earth, living by grace holy lives of faithful obedience, and those who have been translated to higher life in and with Christ in heaven. Thus it is (from the evangelical viewpoint) the celebration of All Souls’ who are in Christ and are (in biblical terminology) his saints, first on earth and then in heaven.
If we follow the central, western Catholic tradition, and think of the Church as Militant here on earth, Expectant in the interim period before the Final Judgment and Resurrection of the Dead, and then Triumphant in heaven, we see the need to keep All Souls’ or something like it. Here the focus is Expectancy and the belief is that baptized believers die as not yet pure & perfected for they are not yet fully obedient and fully loving, and their souls are still stained by their own sin. They need to be purged and cleansed by the grace of Christ in order to enter into and enjoy the blessedness of heaven with Christ, their Lord and Saviour as purified souls. Thus the Church on earth, united to the Church expectant which is in the intermediate state of purgation, prays for her brothers and sisters that their period of cleansing and sanctification will be swift so that they enter quickly into the full fellowship of heaven by promotion to the Church Triumphant, where the true saints and martyrs already dwell by grace in glory everlasting.
What I have noticed in the Church of England is that where a Church (say a Cathedral or major City church) offers services on both November 1 & 2, the attendance on November 2 is greater. And the reason seems to be that this is the Day when a lot of people feel a desire to remember their departed spouses & parents and family members, especially those who were killed in war or tragic circumstances. This higher attendance is not necessarily a statement of their belief in purgatory but is a means of keeping with solemnity, reverence and love the memory of the loved one. This suggests to me that even Protestant Evangelicals perhaps need to find a genuine pastoral use for All Souls’ even if they do not subscribe to the doctrine of the Church Expectant and of Masses for the dead.
Hallow-een (= All-hallow-even) is the Eve of All Hallows (Saints), the last night of October. [In the old Celtic Calendar the last night of October was “old year’s night”, the night of all witches, and the Church sought to purify it by making it into the Eve of All Saints. Yet much of the former revelry and practices remained and they have been revived in modern dress by some people in our modern secular age.] It is best for Christians, I think, to avoid all association with the worldly celebration of Hallow-een and to gather in Church on the Eve of All Saints, for a time of rejoicing and preparation for All Saints’ Day.
One sobering and challenging fact about the use of the word “saint” in the New Testament is that all baptized believers are here on earth both saints and called to be saints -- they are sanctified in and by Christ now through His Cross and they are called to be holy through the indwelling of the Holy Ghost.
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon M.A., D.Phil. (Oxon.)