Why All Saints' Day Matters
By Ryan Hamm
November 1, 2011
This morning, most people are concerned with how epic their costume party was this weekend, how bad their kids’ teeth are going to be because of that neighbor down the street who specializes in full-sized Milky Ways or how you can’t believe she would go out in public wearing that. And for Christians, those concerns might lump in something about “how can people claiming to be Christ-followers celebrate a pagan festival” or fond reminisces about Sunday’s Halloween-in-all-but-name Harvest Festival.
All of this misses the point.
For much of modern human history (since at least the 16th century) All Hallows’ Eve—in other words, Halloween—has been notable for what it anticipates. The “eve” in the name isn’t just for show, just as the “eve” in Christmas Eve suggests something else is just over the horizon. That something, in the case of Nov. 1, is All Hallows or All Saints’ Day (fun fact: it’s also known as Hallowmas, which sounds like the greatest Christmas-Halloween mash-up ever, where kids wear costumes, gorge themselves on candy and get gifts. Like that wouldn’t take off immediately). Christians all over the world will celebrate today, remembering the saints.
And you might be (rightly) wondering: But what does that mean?
It’s a good question—after all, there are all sorts of rituals associated with All Saints’ Day that might seem superstitious or even, well, weird. But All Saints’ Day is a reason to celebrate for all Christians—yes, even you who are perusing a website for twenty- and thirtysomethings and living in 2011.
The point of All Saints’ Day is to remember and celebrate the depth and breadth of Christians—that is, the saints. We’re accustomed to hearing certain people labeled as saints—any of the Gospel writers, for instance, or the Twelve Disciples or any number of Church fathers and mothers who have done amazing things for the Kingdom of God. And, on Nov. 1, those people are rightly remembered and honored.
But the day is about more than that. It’s about remembering you’re in a “great cloud of witnesses.” And that cloud is bigger than you might think.
The depth of the saints
Whenever you hear that verse about the “great cloud of witnesses” (check out Hebrews 11-12 for a reminder of the context), who do you think about? Do you think about “faith heroes” of the past, like C.S. Lewis, Mother Teresa, John Calvin and St. Paul? Do you think about contemporary Christian icons like Francis Chan, Rob Bell, John Piper and N.T. Wright? Or do you look at the list in Hebrews 11 and remember the faithfulness of Moses, Rahab, Abraham and Sarah?
If you’re a Christian, your answer ought to be “all of the above,” for these are your lineage.
All Saints’ Day reminds us that there are Christians who came before us who have run the race well. If you feel far away from God and wonder where He is, take solace in the bracing Psalm 89 (side note: can you imagine the comments if the writer had posted that as a blog post?) or in Mother Teresa’s despair—and faithfulness—over a sense of alienation from God. If you feel like you’ve done something so bad you could never again experience the power of God’s love, remember the Confessions of St. Augustine and the Damascus experience of St. Paul. If you want to remember the power of the Holy Spirit, celebrate the example of saint William Seymour (preacher at the Azusa Street Revival) and the mystical reflections of St. Teresa of Avila.
On All Saints’ Day, Christians are also afforded the opportunity be reminded of the current Christians around the world. Whatever you think of their general theology, reading Rob Bell’s Love Wins will quicken your heart at the hope of Christ making all things new, which in turn is deeply indebted to N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope. John Piper’s Desiring God (and one of N.T. Wright’s other books, After You Believe) reminds believers of the joys of holiness. And books by the saints Richard Foster and Dallas Willard give us a blueprint for spiritual discipline. There are many, many other examples—far too many to list here. But the depth of Christian saints ought to make any believer thankful. There are saints who have walked the road of faith before us, and their stumbles, joys and hard-fought victories give us both hope and encouragement.
The width of the saints
In addition to the historical depth of the Christian saints, there is also the modern breadth. Even though it’s sometimes looked at askance, think of all the people—very, very different people—who gather under the banner of Christ. You’ve got saints of every nation, every language, every job, every walk of life ... all worshipping the same God. Sure, Christians might differ in terms of how that worship plays out in day-to-day life. And yes, those differences sometimes cause painful and tragic division. But All Saints’ Day reminds us it doesn’t have to be that way. The saints all over the world are part of one, universal Church trying to worship the same God. That includes rich people and poor people, people of all ethnicities, men and women, Calvinists and Open Theists, the 99 percent and the 1 percent, Democrats and Republicans, creationists and evolutionists, and everyone else you can imagine.
Those differences mean this: You are not alone.
If you find yourself thinking, “This sounds like a naive utopia,” that's OK. Because it is a utopia. It's just not naive; it’s hopeful. All Saints’ Day is a time to remember—to embrace—what the Kingdom of God looks like (and what it will look like forever).
It’s easy to get cynical about all the Christian infighting among the people who call themselves followers of Christ, but All Saints’ Day can remind Christians what it looks like when those divisions don’t overpower the communion of the Saints. It’s a reason to celebrate what God has done through people, and how the “great cloud of witnesses” is both wider and deeper than we might think.